Google's stupidly cute self driving car. Source: Google

Google’s stupidly cute self driving car. Source: Google

There’s a funny quirk about technology that most people don’t notice. To begin with, the idea that a computer could perform a certain task is seen as “impossible”. For a computer to beat a human at chess was seen as impossible once. Nevertheless, people tried to build them and failed all while others looked on teasing that the game of chess was too complex a problem and a task solely reserved for the human domain. That is until Deep Blue beat a reigning world champion chess player in 1997.

After that tipping point was achieved computers playing chess became an easy thing for computers to do. The problem, like every other achievement of AI, crossed the threshold and changed from being “impossible” to “just plain ordinary”. The reason for this of course is that we humans love to think of ourselves as special, so the idea that a computer could out do us is declared ridiculous… right up until it happens for the first time. Then we degrade the achievement because we’re collectively petty and sore losers. It also becomes ordinary as time goes on and we adapt to the new technology.

This interesting quirk happens over and over again when computers surpass us in each new task. From chess, to poker, to speech translation, to the diagnosis of cancerous cells, they are all declared impossible or thought of as a “silly” pursuit, then the new task is cracked and everyone just accepts that the computers have won in the blink of an eye. And so it will be with fully autonomous cars.

The Fully Autonomous, Electric Cars Are Coming:

Semi-Autonomous cars you can buy are already among us today, (as well as fully autonomous test cars like the one below) but make no mistake, they are coming and soon. Once again, the general consensus from people is that “it’ll never happen” or “it’s ages away” but when you ask the people responsible for the development of the technology the quotes come back as anywhere between 2-5 years for a fully commercially available car you could buy. The exact time frame isn’t super important for this piece but let’s just go with the 5 year estimate. Maybe it’ll be 6, maybe 8 years but either way let’s just assume that in 5 years you will be able to go out and buy a car that 100% drives itself from point A to B from all the big auto makers like BMW, Ford, GM, Tesla etc.

The second part of this puzzle and the one that I think really ups the ante, is that 5 years from now the cars being sold won’t only be fully autonomous, but fully electric too. An example would be the Tesla Model 3 that I’ve written about before that should be available around 2017/2018, cost $55,000 and have a 320km range. By 2020 it’s likely to have a range of near 500-600km’s and be half that price too. Now the car itself being fully electric is nice but the real magic happens when it’s also paired with solar panels and batteries. Yes, the up front cost (currently) is high to run your whole house and car on solar/batteries. However in 5 years time solar panel prices are predicted to have gone down by at least another 40% and battery prices are predicted to follow a similar reduction curve like solar panels did over the last 5 years. Without getting into technical details too much it’s quite likely that by 2020 taking your whole house (and car) off-grid will be a sub $10,000 affair. Once that cost is paid though… driving is not only autonomous, but essentially “free”.

Free Transport For All:

Now obviously “free” is a relative term. There’s still the cost of tyres, wind-shield wiper blades, brake pads (about the only ongoing maintenance for electric cars) not to mention that up front cost but let me make my point by asking another question: How much do you view “downloading” to cost?

It’s free.

Downloading data off the Internet is, for all intents and purposes seen as free. Technically it’s not, your ADSL connection probably runs about $60-$100+/month not to mention the Wi-Fi modem, phone line connection charge and cost of your laptop/computer/mobile/tablet. But because they’re mostly one time, up front costs we imagine the general use of the technology as “free” in our minds. Do you care about downloading 10MB or 10GB? No! It just takes a bit more time that’s all (especially with Australia’s lame Internet speeds!)

So once you own a fully electric, fully autonomous car and your house runs on all electricity, solar panels and batteries… having your car transport you around then will be quickly seen as “free”. Driving 1km or 100km will be the same thing… it will just take a bit more time that’s all .

Adoption Rates:

Now the fact that they’re “free” to drive and that they drive themselves is already a good enough reason I think for most people to upgrade. However there’s actually MORE reasons:

  • Fully autonomous means you can relax, talk, sleep, text, do work while driving places
  • Fully electric means “free” ongoing transport or at the very least (if no solar/batteries) your petrol costs are reduced by roughly 70%
  • Fully autonomous means you are MUCH safer in your car due to better driving and avoidance of accidents
  • Fully electric means you are MUCH safer again in your car due to no engine in the front allowing for more crumple zones
  • Fully autonomous means you can be black out drunk and still safely be driven home every time
  • Fully electric cars generally accelerate faster than combustion engine cars, they also have 100% torque available 100% of the time
  • Fully electric cars are better for the environment, even when that electricity is produced by coal plants
  • Fully electric cars are more technologically advanced usually with remote control features and newer interior designs/electronics
  • Fully electric cars are quieter, smoother and have more interior space for luggage and passengers
  • Fully electric cars require virtually no maintenance except for tyres, wind-shield wiper blades and brake pads

That’s a LOT of compelling, legitimately good reasons I think. Going from a standard car now to a fully electric, fully autonomous car would be a HUGE jump, certainly more than the “oh it now comes with Bluetooth” incremental advances you generally see in cars these days. The result will be that as soon as people experience it, they will purchase one VERY quickly. Traditionally cars have a ~10 year rolling stock cycle but with this revolutionary change I wouldn’t be surprised to see a vast majority of car owners upgrade over a 2-3 year period similar to how everyone changed from dumb phones to smartphones once the iPhone got released and the game changed forever.

The Future 2020:

So you’re now in the future, 2020. You’ve just done a kick ass upgrade of your house and car. You got a great deal from Tesla buying their latest Model 3 hatch that has a 500km range, is fully autonomous and also got 28kWh’s worth of their Powerwall battery unit’s with the 10kW solar panel system you had installed. Your house runs entirely on electricity and is fully off-grid now. The solar panels cost $6,000, the batteries $5,000 and the Model 3 was $35,000. You now no longer have to pay gas bills, power bills or petrol bills ever again.

So now that driving anywhere is essentially “free”… how does that change your life?

Driving an hour (or two or three) each way to work in traffic isn’t an issue any more as you can just hop up at 4/5/6am, jump in the car and continue sleeping. You could also start your day early by remotely logging in on your laptop via 5G, continue binge watching Master Chef 12, eat your breakfast whilst reading the news or virtually any other task one might do in the morning to relax at home. It doesn’t cost you any more to travel 100km’s into work than it would to live within walking distance. It doesn’t even really take up any more of your time as you can do most things you’d do at home. Cost and for the most part time is completely removed from the equation, so what does that mean for house locations, city planning… public transport?

What happens when all transport = “free”?

For one thing public transport will be a much harder sell. It can easily cost $5-$10 per day to travel into and home from work on public transport. Who on earth would waste $10 every day when they can be driven to their work door in their own private car… for free? No one that’s who. So long public transport industry…

Now what about taxi drivers? Uber is one of the biggest companies currently researching fully autonomous vehicles for good reason, the human driver in their Uber cars is their most expensive expense! In 2020 though there are no human Uber drivers. Uber’s are fully electric, fully autonomous and dirt cheap too. Not that you really need taxi services any more as you can be shit face plastered and still drive home safe and sound in your personal autonomous car. You could even have it drive you to the club, drop you off outside, drive back home… then come pick you up 5 hours later! It doesn’t cost any money so why the hell not?? So long taxi driver industry…

Personal cars won’t be the only thing going fully autonomous either. Along with taxi’s you’ll have long haul trucks, delivery vans, everything. So long truck drivers, delivery men (drones are quicker anyway), limo drivers, bus drivers, train drivers, boat captains and so on. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be made irrelevant (roughly 5%) as the transport sector is one of THE largest employer of jobs in Australia.

A Complex Interplay:

Now Australia’s unemployment rate rising by five full percent and roughly half a million people put out of their job is obviously not fantastic but fully electric, fully autonomous auto’s (cars, trucks, trains etc) will bring about many big changes for the better. Less death and injury from accidents, independent transportation for the blind, old and disabled, far fewer greenhouse emissions, less traffic, huge amounts of reclaimable space due to less need for car parks, a much more pleasant and relaxed driving experience, the ability to drive while drunk, for children to drive themselves where they want to go and many more. Furthermore it will drastically reduce the cost of transport enabling it to be available to more people on lower incomes just like the Internet has made the information of all human knowledge freely accessible to anyone.

The end result will be a complex mix of good and bad outcomes for various parties, however I believe the “good” far outweighs the bad. At the very least it will save roughly 1,000 lives per year in Australia and that is a day I look forward to indeed.

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