By José Viegas
Autonomous road vehicles are attracting a lot of interest and investment these days. It’s fair to predict that both the public discussion and the flows of money will keep growing. Attention is focused mainly on autonomous vehicles for passengers (think Google car, Tesla Autopilot) and automated road freight transport (think truck platooning, Otto). Availability of those vehicles will lead to disruptive change in two other domains: private mobility on the one hand and professional transport services on the other.
The profound technological change implied by autonomous driving will inspire radical innovations in the way vehicles are used – as happened with phones, which have become much more than just devices to make calls since they became mobile. This innovation happens like a wave that feeds on itself until mature usage patterns emerge after something like 10 or 15 years. We must humbly recognise that nobody can claim today to have a clear vision of what those usages will be in one or two decades.
But that shouldn’t stop us of thinking boldly today about what might happen. Personally, I believe that itinerant services will be a new important usage area for autonomous vehicles. Such itinerant services were very popular in the 1950s and 60s in many countries, particularly with libraries. Those vans were serving areas that had few or no public libraries or bookshops, but still had many potential interested readers. I was an intensive user of a library van during my summer holidays for some years and have fond memory of the value it provided in terms of access to varied reading.
Post offices or banks on wheels as well as rolling points-of-sale for vegetables or clothes were also common in many regions, and sometimes still are. Recently, this phenomenon has seen something of a revival with the appearance of food trucks that bring high-end cuisine literally to the streets of hip urban quarters – in principle a modern, upmarket take on the Kebab or ice cream vans of yonder.
Automated vehicle will create a real opportunity for the resurgence of itinerant services, I believe. There seems to be a particularly strong case for them where the self-driving vehicle can provide some form of sophisticated equipment to which clients otherwise would have to travel. The most obvious examples that come to mind are in the health sector. The collection of medical samples fordiagnostics purposes, for instance, could probably be organised with specialised self-driving vehicles, very likely with remote human support from a medical professional.
Vehicle autonomy not only reduces the cost of provision of those itinerant services and makes them more accessible to its users. Self-driving vehicles also make it much easier to change locations during off hours – during night time or on public holidays, say. Entrepreneurial spirit, associated with technological innovations in other sectors than transport will have a quite field to explore. The whole field of “experiencing”, presently a key target of the travel industry, comes to mind in association with virtual reality and possibly differentiated catering evoking the places thus visited.
Ultimately, marrying a time-honoured service idea with
modern self-driving technology could help bring a wide range of
sophisticated services that currently can only be accessed in more time consuming and often costly ways to people everywhere. The space of opportunity for business innovation is clearly there.
So my bet is that we will see the re-emergence of itinerant services, but possibly on a much larger scale and with greater variety than the good, old fashioned library on wheels I knew. Unlike my bookish van, which returned to its depot in the evening and left from there again the next morning (with a good night’s sleep for the driver in between), the trips of a self-driving itinerant service will no longer have a clear origin or destination. It will be forever circling around, with “destinations” simply a succession of events along the way. Some of its functions could probably be performed without even stopping.
From a transport policy perspective, this will be a more efficient and less travel-intensive way of providing certain services. For other business models, this approach will generate new markets and probably additional vehicle kilometres on the road.
What the combined effect of all this will be nobody can say. What we can say is that autonomous vehicles will spawn new forms of mobility, and that it will pay off to carefully monitor this development – to spot new business opportunities, but ultimately also to enable them to thrive in a transport system that is efficient, safe, user-friendly, not only once we reach a future steady state, but throughout the radical transformation transport is entering.
José Viegas is the Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum