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Self-Driving Cars and Other Technologies Are Turning Auto Industry Upside Down

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author photo by Russ Heaps June 2016

Who likes change, right?

Well, change is upon the auto industry in the guise of self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles (AVs), as they are also called, have several carmakers hustling to keep pace with developments in this arena. For good or bad, though, AVs are just one of several huge innovations unsettling the auto industry.

With one foot on a banana peel and the other dangling over the black hole of relentless change, carmakers are scrambling to forge new relationships with companies outside the industry. The goal: Don't get left behind.

Texas-based Vox Technology, a company specializing in computing, automation and networking solutions recently released a paper on a few key issues turning the auto industry on its ear. Although the industry appears capable of taking any these developments, such as self-driving cars, in stride, when combined, they might prove to be more than carmakers can handle.

Automation

Although automation in the form of AVs is the mutant the carmakers themselves created, like Frankenstein's monster, it could well get away from them. Once upon a time, visionaries dreamed of cars without drivers guided down the highway along some sort of technology embedded in the pavement. As the idea of AVs has evolved, it is now much more of a software than a hardware issue. Carmakers are basically hardware manufacturers. They excel in dealing with touchable elements, rather than the 1s and 0s of software programming.

In the short term, this won't matter much. Autonomous technologies will continue to creep into cars first as options and then as standard equipment. Cars will look and behave as they do currently for at least a decade or two; however, gradually drivers will be able to choose to become less and less involved.

In the long term, though, the eventual outcome will be cars requiring absolutely no human input. With cars able to zip all around on their own, more humans may decide to give up car ownership entirely, relying instead on car sharing.

Car Sharing

Car sharing, or what Vox refers to as ride-hailing services, isn't making huge inroads into traditional taxi services in most areas, but it is gaining acceptance -- particularly among younger urban commuters. Even those car owners who do car share, using such services as Uber and Lyft, will probably be hesitant to give up their personal vehicles in favor of car sharing. However, as the popularity of ride hailing increases, we could see more user-friendly car-rental services spring up.

Just as Uber and Lyft are delivering a better-connected alternative to traditional taxi services, perhaps a similar take on car rental along the lines of Zipcar will make renting simpler and more affordable. When considered together, such a watershed change in car usage could eventually coax us out of our cars.

Electric Vehicles

Currently electric vehicles (EVs) account for fewer than one percent of total car sales in the United States. It's unlikely the EV share of the pie will grow much over the next few years. I would argue, however, that as fuel cells replace batteries as the fuel source for EVs, their sales will soar. Range and recharging time are the two biggest stumbling blocks slowing sales of today's EVs. Fuel cells will eliminate both those hurdles.

But then what? Car manufacturers are comfortable making cars with gas engines, transmissions and all the other elements required for gasoline-powered cars. At some point, cars will be drastically different than they are today, carmakers will have to adjust to those changes.

Perfect Storm

The analysis from Vox Technology is that the auto industry could weather any one of these changes without too much disruption. All will be gradual in their impact on the industry and how it conducts business. But, the industry isn't facing just one of these major shifts; it's facing all three. The combination of this trio of changes, Vox predicts, will create a perfect storm of sorts, which will comprehensively shake up the auto industry.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Self-Driving Cars and Other Technologies Are Turning Auto Industry Upside Down - Autotrader