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Autonomous cars are about to do to transport what the internet did to information

Matter is going to move more freely and cheaply than ever before

If a time machine could slingshot us back a quarter of a century to 1992, we’d visit a world in which print and broadcast media chugged along in rude health. Everyone read newspapers, and watched television because, well, what else could you do to stay informed?

In 1992, only a few hundred people knew about the World Wide Web, yet within a decade every media organisation everywhere found itself in a state of panicked repositioning as they struggled to accomodate a universal information network.

We can’t really blame the media for being unprepared because the Web seemed to materialise out of nowhere, leaving a landscape scraped back to its foundations but with some monstrous creatures – Hello Google and Facebook! - voraciously thriving amid the wreckage.

Could anyone have warned newspapers that the end was near? The proposition that people would share their own news (real and fake) outside of established networks would have been rejected as ridiculous. Yet here we are... Oh, hello, President Trump.

This “change blindness" makes venture capitalists rub their hands together in glee. Every tech startup since Intel has made a meal from the corpses of companies that can’t or won’t place a bet on the future. “Disruption" has become both a mantra and a permanent feature of life in a technological society. We’re told to get used to it, because more is coming.

Yes, the robots are coming for our jobs. That’s not news. But it seems to be where this line of inquiry trails off - perhaps after someone moots a “basic income". But no one seems to look at the other outcome of the rise of the robots: a collapse in prices.

Let’s take one case in point: self-driving cars. It’s unlikely these autonomous vehicles will be very much cheaper than the automobiles we purchase today. But it’s equally unlikely that we’ll purchase them. Uber recently negotiated with Mercedes to lease a fleet of their self-driving vehicles, and arch-competitor Lyft inked a similar agreement with GM earlier this month.

Everywhere we look, we see an interesting intersection of electric vehicles + autonomous vehicles + on-demand vehicle fleets. That sweet spot means we will be able to use an app to summon a vehicle anywhere, at any time, at a price that will be very inexpensive, because all human labor has been taken out of the equation.

That points toward a transformation of public transport, as it privatises into autonomous, electric vehicle fleets.

But even that, although revolutionary, makes up one percent of the story. We need to look beyond ourselves, at all of the stuff in the world we need to move around, because all of our kit will also be traveling in autonomous vehicles -- designed as cheap transport for goods that don’t need a lot of collision protection.

The majority of the vehicles on the road in 2042 - that’s twenty five years from now - will be those four-wheeled autonomous delivery robots. The cost of delivering something - accounting for lease, wear and tear, and solar-generated electricity - will be a few cents a kilometre.

That inverts everything we think about our commercial relationships. You never go to get anything; everything comes to you. A retailer will happily send along several sizes of an item of clothing for you to try on in the privacy of your home, and will send along another vehicle to collect the ones you elect to return. All of our commercial relationships will focus on products coming to us - and if this looks like the niche Amazon has already carved out for itself, it may be that Jeff Bezos, uniquely among his peers, has already figured this out.

Conversely, I recently witnessed a panel of investment experts hand a big cheque to an entrepreneur with a brilliant idea for a logistics business - ensuring your packages get delivered at convenient times.

It’s a great concept because it's painful finding a missed delivery receipt in the postbox, but also one with a life expectancy not much greater than a hamster. The first autonomous vehicles are already on the market. By 2020 you’ll have a range of luxury models to choose from. Those luxury vehicles can easily be adapted to commercial deliveries, operating 20 hours day. That’s how this begins - and how that clever business idea comes to a quick end.

That a panel of investors just waved this through tells me they believe the world of tomorrow works just like the world of today. In reality, it’s 1992 all over again. The world of our possessions will very soon enjoy the kind of fluidity our information found a generation ago. As a result, every business that deals in things needs to rethink what they do, and how they do it. There’s still time to learn from history. ®

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