The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing

Humans constantly come up with innovations (there are over 500 patents per day in the US alone) yet most are incremental improvements that succeed in making everyday life easier.  However, about every twenty years or so a “big” invention comes, something that leads to fundamental changes in how the majority of humans live. Consider the following recent history. Of course, the following breakthroughs were in development for many years, and there are certainly many valid lists that could be made.  The time periods below signify when a significant percentage of humanity was able to benefit.

1900 Assembly line makes it possible to mass produce items and increases the amount of things the average person can have.

1920 Cars become available to general consumers, leading to new industries, reconfiguring cities to include suburbs, and allowing destinations such as Las Vegas to thrive.

1940 Commercial Air Travel – The world becomes much ‘smaller’ and trade between peoples and nations increase.

1960 Green Revolution – Fertilizers and scientific plant breeding allow the population of the world to explode.

1980 Computers increase productivity, allow instantaneous communication around the globe, and open up whole new industries such as software.

2000 Cell phones drive the rise of the app economy, mobile transactions, and drive the cost of computing power low enough that there are now more than 7 billion mobile devices in the world.

2020 Driverless Cars – The next big thing.

Driverless cars will be resisted at first as humans are naturally reluctant to give up autonomy, especially in matters concerning their safety. However, the benefits are too numerous to ignore, and they will fundamentally change how we live.

Reduce Car Ownership

Owning a car is an inefficient activity. Cars decrease in value once driven off the lot, require regular maintenance and gas, require space to park in, and yet sit unused 22+ hours a day. If you need a SUV only 5% of the time, you still have to drive it the other 95% of the time.  It would be much easier to just subscribe to a car service that appeared when you needed it. You could request a sports car for going on a date or a truck to transport a larger object. Companies like Netflix have already exposed the public to the subscription model. Companies like Lyft and Uber are already helping people to give up owning cars. Uber’s not really (or at least not only) fighting against cabbies – they are fighting against owning a car. The CEO of Uber has stated: “The reason Uber is expensive is not the car, it’s the other dude in the car. When there’s no dude in the car, the cost of taking the vehicle somewhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. And then car ownership goes away.”

Open New Locations

Driverless cars won’t let people go anywhere they currently can’t, but they will make things easy enough that new locations will see a boom in tourists. Because people will be able to sleep in the cars, locations 8-10 hours away will become ‘close.’ Imagine getting in your car at 10 pm, watching a movie and then heading to sleep, and then waking up at 8 am for a day at the beach/Disneyland/Mountains/Casino/Stadium. At the end of the day you simply get back in the car, and then wake up back home.

Reclaim Wasted Space

One of the key benefits of driverless cars will be the reduction in parking space. Homeowners will suddenly have several hundred square feet of “extra” space that they can use as a studio, workout space, or extra room to rent out. Commercial developments are currently limited by the need to provide enough parking spaces, and parking garages are common downtowns. Just imagine if parking garages were converted to parks. Imagine the effect on traffic congestion of removing street parking and replacing that space with another lane.

Reduce Emissions

If cars are getting driven more, how will this reduce emissions? First of all, reducing traffic will have a large effect. Secondly, the cars in the sharing service will all be electric. Why? Electric cars cost more up front, but cost less per mile to drive. It is hard to make up the initial cost driving the car only a couple hours a day. However, if a car was working 24/7, the payoff will be quick. This will have a huge environmental impact. Some of the current issues around electric cars (i.e., charging time) become moot.

Reduce Accidents and Insurance

As cars will be able to talk to each other and the road, accidents will sharply be reduced, if not eliminated all together. Volvo has stated a goal to have no fatalities in any of their cars built after 2020. The chance that humans will cause accidents are sharply increased when they are texting, distracted, or drunk. Cars that can make these decisions in a split second will remove the problem of distracted driving. Imagine all the lives ruined by DUIs (both victims and criminals) that could have been spared. Cars can also use other sensors (ie, IR) that humans don’t have access to..

Insurance costs are mainly driven by accidents, so dropping accidents will reduce the cost of insurance or perhaps even the need for it altogether.

Reclaim Time

All of the time spent commuting will now be available. No doubt, much of this time will be spent browsing the internet (Hence Google’s interest) or watching movies. However, this will also increase the amount of work a given scientist or engineer is able to get done in a day, or perhaps allow for shorter work days and longer time at home.

Open Transportation

Autonomous cars will also open transportation to a much wider variety of humans, and licenses (and the DMV) will be a thing of the past. The aged, the young, and the disabled will all be able to move about with relative freedom. Mom can keep track of a video and GPS to make sure her 10 year old makes it to soccer practice, while grandma can make it to the family reunion.

Lower Cost

The net effect of all these benefits will be lower overall transportation cost. This frees up consumer spending to focus on other areas of the economy, while redirecting the work of many who are in industries who will not benefit.


While the net benefits will be large, any new technology has the potential to be misused, and driverless cars are no exception. The largest may be that driverless cars will be potent new weapon for terrorists. According to NPR, a car bomb currently costs $20,000. When you consider the reported $2 billion held by ISIS or other state organizations, the limit on the number of attacks they can carry out is basically the number of people they have who are willing to blow themselves up. Whichever service(s) emerges will have to have ways to prevent people from planting a bomb in a rented car and sending it to a target.

Security from hackers will also be a fundamental concern, as taking control of a car could lead to death of the occupant. Ideally other cars on the road will be able to stop runaway cars (though avoidance or boxing in).