Autonomous cars are looming on the horizon, but are we ready?

While automation is inevitable, it involves so many factors: technology, legislation and societal change.

The level of automation we get to is questionable. Level 4 — that’s to say, fully autonomous cars in specifically designated areas — will happen in China probably by 2021. Level 4 autonomy under every condition in any location may never be possible. Though the technology is here, having the infrastructure and legislation to allow for four people facing inwards is another story, and could still be 10 or 15 years away, or even longer depending on location.

What we are talking about is much broader than just a question of autonomy. We are moving into a space where car manufacturers are no longer just thinking about design and engineering — manufacturers are now becoming software engineers as well. The UX of cars will completely change: with the ability to update overnight, add new features or purchase upgrades as needed. On top of that, AI is adding so much more richness to the UX of cars, and in ways that we are only just beginning to understand.

The fascinating thing is that autonomy will completely change business models. Technology like AI and connectivity will make cars smart, transforming them into a platform much like our smartphones. As the car becomes a platform, auto brands will need to marry data and software to meet all of their consumers’ needs. This will transform the role of manufacturer again, turning them into mobility providers that serve digital content to their consumers. Such an enormous change to the business model of the industry will be an adjustment that big companies may find difficult to pivot towards.

It seems that future business models will move away from car ownership to subscription models and sharing services, and traditional players are finding it difficult to keep up. There will still be consumers that want to own cars, like an Aston Martin or a 911. (It’s likely that the last car to ever be autonomous will be an Aston Martin, because people save time in other areas of their lives with autonomy in order to enjoy the pleasure of driving one.)

There will be a spectrum of adoption of ownership that auto companies need to create different models for. Traditional brick and mortars may have a disadvantage of moving slowly, but they also have the advantage of being closest to the end consumer and understanding what they want. That access is invaluable at this stage of change, as consumers don’t even know what they want yet.

The reason Aston Martin partnered with Lagonda was to cater for these varying desires. Most sports cars and those on racetracks have mass amounts of data output about the driving experience and drivers’ feelings in order to make the autonomous experience better. Aston Martin will continue to be the car consumers want to drive, whilst the Lagonda will be the luxury car consumers get driven by.

Having said that, the input of data and technology into a category that is designed to be about the raw driving experience is a balancing act. Analogue will always be important in a digital world, which can be seen replicated in the music space and the rise of vinyl in contrast to the rise of MP3s. These opposing forces are replicated across many industries; as the desire for craftsmanship and handmade items rise, so too does the expectation for the latest advances in technology to be seamlessly integrated.

As personal data is integrated into the autonomous journey, many ethical questions and ramifications must also be considered. It is undoubtable that autonomy will add value to society. Autonomy can’t mitigate against all accidents, but it’s estimated that accidents will go down by at least 80%. We as a society will need to have an open discussion in order to decide on the ethical questions that arise on the other 20%.

As for data collection, this will be closely tied to legislation. GDPR, unsurprisingly, created a lot of nervousness in the industry as to how to handle data. It is a competitive advantage for companies to be transparent with their consumers on how they use data. Generationally, we are also shifting our perceptions on how much we are willing to share. At the end of the day, the amount of information that consumers are willing to share will come down to how much value brands are in turn adding to those consumers’ lives.

In summary, within the next five years the safety designs and monitoring systems will make the roads a safer place. Cars will become smart devices on wheels with big screens and high-speed connectivity. We will have a lean towards shared mobility based on autonomous driving and new business models.

And we, as consumers, will also have far more choice! There will be many more business models, types of autonomy, driving situations than we have now; auto brands will cater to far more people than they do today. We are at a fundamental shift within not just the automotive world, but the connected world. Across industries, if we have knowledge, information and imagination, we can create a better world.