Batteries on wheels are about to reshape our cities and lives

Cars as we know them shaped our cities in bad ways that IT will untangle

In the lobby of the hotel hosting a recent (and somewhat panicked) summit of the leaders of Australia’s automobile industry, someone had parked a vast, black Volvo SUV.

Why give a car that’s not manufactured in Australia (and never will be) such star billing? On the first weekend in November, that car - Volvo’s XC90 - will be given sole access to South Australia’s highways, so the vehicle can drive itself - autonomously - without putting human drivers or passengers in any danger.

Not that there’s a whole lot of danger to begin with. Autonomous vehicles designed by Google and Volvo and Mercedes driven themselves a lot of kilometres without getting into a lot of smashes. When those accidents occur, the blame tends to lie with a human driver, rather than the robot car.

All of this safety data means the push toward autonomous vehicles won’t come from the vehicle manufacturers themselves, but from the insurers of those vehicles. When an insurer looks at the liability profile of an autonomous vehicle - versus a human who can be tired, distracted, drunk, or just plain angry - it’s looking quite likely that autonomous vehicles will cost next to nothing to insure, while the cost of insuring human drivers will skyrocket.

Everyone at that summit understand the penny-drop moment for autonomous vehicles isn’t far away. They’ll all be watching the South Australian trials very closely, working with state officials to establish the regulatory and licensing frameworks that will likely set the standard across the Commonwealth. It’s all happening.

This transition to autonomous vehicles won’t be a sudden step-change. Already, you can buy a Ford that parallel parks. Another yet-to-be-announced model will drop you and the kids at the front of the shops, go off and park itself, then return to pick you up when summoned by smartphone-delivered command. These autonomous capacities already exist, and while they may not yet be commonplace, they’re the thin end of a very long wedge that takes humans out of the driver’s seat and puts them into the passenger’s compartment.

That sounds like a huge change, but for inner-city folks - familiar with public transport and taxis and UberX - very little will feel very different. For folks in suburbia, worries about picking up the little ones after soccer, or letting the teenagers drive to a friend’s party, will recede. All of the comfort and convenience of a vehicle, with almost none of the dangers. In a generation we’ll wonder how we dared live so dangerously.

Yet that’s just the beginning. Sure, autonomous vehicles will be fantastic for us, freeing up leisure time as they make traveling safer, more comfortable and convenient, but in most ways this transition is more about the vehicles themselves than their soon-to-be-obsolete drivers. Autonomous vehicles can have needs and goals that have nothing to do with ferrying humans around.

I’m not invoking a Skynet-via-Christine world of autonomous hunter-seeker drone vehicles. Quite the opposite: a world where vehicles appear on demand, to service particular needs.

This transition to autonomous vehicles goes hand-in-hand with the transition to electric vehicles - simpler and therefore far less prone to breakdowns than their petrol-burning cousins. An autonomous electric vehicle is essentially a big brain with a large battery on four wheels. While that’s certainly useful for moving people around, from a different set of eyes - with different needs - people moving could be the least interesting part of the equation.

Consider a mid 21st century power company: even after we slap solar panels on almost every roof we’ll still have an energy grid because demand will always be lumpy. There’ll still be a need to store energy where it can be most cheaply produced and transport it to where it’s needed.

Those 21st century energy companies will own fleets of self-driving ‘batteries-on-wheels’ that will literally follow heatwaves and cold snaps and other power-consuming events the same way sunflowers follow the sun. When not being used to provide grid capacity, they’ll be leased out to transport people.

Which is another way of saying that Uber may one day reveal itself not just as a transport company, but as an energy provider. So might Tesla. And Google. And Apple.

It’s this radical rethinking about what a vehicle is and what it can be used for that’s at the heart of the autonomous revolution. That’s the reason the automobile industry is again becoming the most interesting sector of the tech economy - restoring a crown lost with the birth of the microprocessor. Take us out of the driver’s seat, and a whole new world of possibilities opens up. ®

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