Planes, trains, and automobiles: 6 ways automation will change everything

By | 7 minute read | August 24, 2017

Image by Arthur Radebaugh

When Boeing announced a self-flying plane, reactions ranged from philosophical shrugs about the inevitable march of robots across every aspect of the industry to panicked declarations about never setting foot on an autonomous airplane or even being in the same airport as one.

People are getting used to the idea of self-driving vehicles and maybe even self-flying choppers that fight wildfires, but the idea of pilotless airplanes seemed too much, too fast.

Autopilot technology already does most of the work once a plane is flying, however, and companies are developing solutions that can achieve the goal of autonomous aviation, including artificial intelligence with the ability to replicate and even improve on the decisions pilots make.

The future of autonomous transportation

Autonomous transportation has the potential to reshape industries and our world and is perched at the intersection where the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, electric energy, and voice-recognition collide.

And we’re close to witnessing this change in our lifetime. More than 30 companies are spending billions to develop self-driving cars, and one estimate suggests autonomous vehicles will be a $42-billion market by 2025.

1. Mobility will be democratized

Imagine the elderly or disabled, particularly those with limited access to public transportation, having access to self-driving cars. What if people unable to afford a car could pay an hourly rate for rides or share ownership within their community?

Major urban areas already suffer severe housing shortages — an issue that will be exacerbated by ballooning urban populations. Even people with access to public transportation must endure mega commutes. Cars sit inactive for 95% of the day and could instead be treated as a shared resource.

According to an IBM report, traditional ownership models may not meet future consumer expectations, as 42% of people surveyed are very interested in subscription pricing. It will be fascinating to see how shared resources and easily accessible mobility will strengthen communities. Will people be able to live in more affordable neighborhoods, as longer commutes may be cheaper and less time-consuming?

With an average U.S. commute time of 50 minutes, we’ll have an extra hour to use idealistically or indulgently. All that free time can lead to more time spent working, watching movies, or reading books to our children. Doctors can spend their time prepping for an emergency surgery — and get to hospitals faster when their vehicle is prioritized via IoT interconnectivity. Law enforcement can spend less time focusing on driving and more time observing and investigating.

2. Cities will take on a new shape

The U.S. has 500 million parking spaces that cover an estimated 3,590 square miles (9,298 square kilometers). Think about the dominance of vehicle infrastructure in congested areas and how that precious space can be reused to build more housing or pedestrian-friendly, community-building spaces. Cities, once redesigned to accommodate cars, will need to be redesigned again.

“We’ve ceded our streets to the automobile and away from the pedestrian. That has to change.” — Karina Ricks, City of Pittsburgh, City of Tomorrow Symposium, August 2017

Cities will be less polluted (both noise and exhaust) and congested. And just as the traffic cop with a blaring whistle has largely disappeared, traffic lights too may vanish. The MIT Senseable City Lab believes sensor-laden cars will replace traditional traffic lights as they zoom “through intersections by communicating and remaining at a safe distance from each other.” The Lab predicts traffic efficiency would double.

Besides traffic lights, roads and other infrastructure too can become smarter. The vehicle of the future will be increasingly intelligent, interconnected, and will commute, socialize, and “collaborate with other vehicles, traffic lights, parking bays, and retailers.”

The downside for governments is a loss of automobile revenues such as parking fees, traffic tickets, and registration fees. Transportation-related jobs could also suffer. According to, if ride-hailing and ride-sharing companies “don’t have to pay drivers, they could potentially offer transportation at a price so low that people will choose to travel by car all the way to their destinations, draining transit ridership revenues.”

3. Cars of the future may become “digital chameleons”

With all this free time but limited to the confines of a vehicle, people around the world will want their cars to be tailored to them. By 2025, according to an IBM study, our cars will be sophisticated enough to self-diagnose repairs and communicate with other vehicles and also manage their internal environment, such as each person’s preference for entertainment and work productivity. And 78% of auto executives expect consumers’ digital personas to be interchangeable between vehicles.

Your morning, evening, or weekend routines and moods may differ, and the vehicle will accommodate them with different temperature, music, and seating settings. No more telling the car your destination; it will understand you have a lunch meeting at a restaurant and how to get there. It will confirm the reservation on the way and share the most popular menu items, display key talking points for the meeting and personal details about your meeting partner, and play your favorite song to help you relax if it detects stress.

If people are no longer doing the actual driving, we will need to redesign cars’ physical space. All vehicle passengers could face each other to facilitate conversation or a screen for entertainment. Seating arrangements could be inherently social on family trips and weekends, but be reset to allow for more personal time during weekly commutes or school drop-offs.

4. Artificial intelligence will drive automobiles

Today’s cars are evolving from a form of transportation to a new type of “moving data center with onboard sensors and computers that capture information about the car.” Using such real-time data, AI (cognitive) can provide a safer, more positive drive.

By 2020, connected cars will generate 350 MB of data every minute they operate. Video, audio, voice, and text along with sensor data are all part of the foundation of information. From self-flying airplanes to self-driving trains and automobiles, artificial intelligence can analyze massive amounts of data to personalize experiences, coordinate with other connected “things,” and improve human decisions.

Olli, the first self-driving cognitive vehicle, can take passengers to requested destinations, provide recommendations on where to go, and answer questions about itself, the journey, and the surrounding environment. Olli innovatively blends AI and IoT to analyze and learn from huge volumes of transportation data, generated by more than 30 sensors embedded throughout the vehicle.

5. We’ll be healthier and safer

Self-driving vehicles can help save the lives of 1.3 million people killed by cars each year. Accidents caused by human error — distracted driving, fatigue, drunk driving — can be reduced significantly as the technology can make decisions on the road faster than people. The horrible impact of vehicle pollution can also be mitigated — if the vehicles combine autonomy with electricity. The World Health Organization says that outdoor air pollution, which contributes to 7 million deaths annually, is today’s single largest environmental health risk.

And don’t forget about the stress of driving, particularly the tense bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that raise our blood pressure and anxiety levels, making us more susceptible to risky driving.

Vehicles will be self-learning. They will understand driving habits, determine how the driver is feeling emotionally and the depth of their overall skill so that they can adjust themselves to drive more efficiently and keep their occupants safer.

Self-socializing vehicles could allow cameras to connect to a local department of public safety, which could assist searches for missing children or escaping criminals.

And how will safer cars and streets impact the insurance we pay? Well, it will save consumers money on the premiums they pay, requiring insurance companies to be creative with the products they offer. And when cars do crash and a passenger is injured, they may be able to collect more from a carmaker than another driver.

6. Electric vehicles may have an even bigger impact than autonomous vehicles

By 2030, 57 percent of vehicles produced each year will be electric, driven by environmental concerns and cheaper operating costs. Regulations are tightening, too. In July 2017, Britain joined a lengthening list of electric-only countries, saying that all new cars must be zero-emission by 2050. India will only sell only electric cars by 2030, a bold vow to help clean up its air.

And some predict electrification will prove to be a far greater disruption to the auto industry than other technology changes — with 75 percent of the industry’s top suppliers facing irrelevance.

Specialized manufacturing creates a need for new plants, new products, and new processes. Manufacturing electric cars is simpler than combustion engine vehicles, opening the door for companies like Apple and Dyson to get into the car building business.

With 300 million commercial vehicles on the planet’s roads, the environmental impact will be enormous, according to Statista. Existing electric cars reduce carbon emissions by 54% compared with gas-powered ones, according to America’s National Resources Defense Council.

The current electric grid cannot support the number of electric cars expected to be on the road by 2040. How can we increase capacity to meet demand?

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