Autonomous vehicles are going to upend the world that jobbers and repair shops have known for decades. The only unknown is when that will happen.
Level 5 (fully autonomous) vehicles are still more than a decade away from running regularly on Canadian roads. But increasingly automated vehicles are being tested all the time in designated fenced-in areas. Ontario recently gave the OK to allow for wider autonomous vehicle testing on its roads.
Gary Silberg, Chicago-based head of automotive for business advisory firm KPMG, said Level 4 autonomous vehicles – which can operate without human input or oversight but only in select conditions, including road type and geographic area – are being launched in “islands of autonomy” in select communities.
In November 2017, Waymo, under Google-parent Alphabet, signed up several hundred families in Phoenix suburb Chandler as part of a focus group. Using an app, people were able to push a button and be picked up by an autonomous vehicle and taken to work. Their spouse could use their own mobile device and the car or truck would come back, pick them up and take them to an appointment.
“They did that for more than a year and had tremendous success. The feedback was tremendous,” Silberg said, noting the same service has been available for a fee to a subset of the original group since last December.
“Assuming everything goes well with the technology, these islands will continue to pop up for the next several years. It’s very exciting. It’s a game changer,” he said.
But when the game changes remains to be seen. Even though the technology is there, many consumers are reluctant to adopt it. Much of that is due to the extensive media coverage that results whenever anything goes wrong. The most notorious example is the accident last March where an autonomous Uber vehicle hit and killed a 49-year-old female cyclist in Arizona.
“Consumers are very apprehensive about the technology,” said Nathan Shipley, Houston-based executive director of industry analysis at market research firm The NPD Group. “They don’t trust it. Car companies are slowly introducing smart technologies, like adaptive cruise control or lane departure features, and that’s how consumers will slowly start getting used to the car helping them drive. Switching from a car that you’re 100 per cent driving to one that is 100 per cent driving itself, that’s a big leap.”
“Assuming everything goes well with the technology, these islands will continue to pop up for the next several years. It’s very exciting. It’s a game changer.”
— Gary Silberg, KPMG
He thinks younger consumers will be much more willing to adapt to the new vehicle technology, even if they might not be able to afford it.
“If you talk to a 65-year-old driver and a 25-year-old driver, older folks say, ‘There’s no way I’m touching an autonomous vehicle. I’ll drive my car. I don’t want anything driving for me,’” Shipley said. “Younger folks aren’t as concerned about their personal information being stolen and shared. They’re different generations.”
The regulatory side could prove to be the bigger hurdle. Shipley believes there are a lot of similarities between the impact of autonomous vehicles and the Internet as both caused or are causing disruptions that governments hadn’t previously considered. In the Internet’s case, that forced politicians to react and create new laws.
“We have traffic laws in every city and they’re all pretty well known. With self-driving cars, what are the rules? Are there parts of the city where you can drive them and parts where you can’t, like a school zone?” he asked.
Malcolm Davidow, a Philadelphia-based partner at Schwartz Advisors, agrees on the importance of regulation, partly because studies have shown there are more accidents between autonomous and human-powered vehicles than there are between strictly human-driven cars and trucks.
“Humans don’t always drive logically. We don’t follow speed limits, we don’t always obey the law and autonomous vehicles consider that illogical behaviour,” he said. “Autonomous vehicles having trouble understanding the illogical decisions of human-powered vehicles is obviously going to have to be solved.”
Davidow believes demand for autonomous vehicles will come primarily from fleets, people who have disabilities, or are too old or are even too young to have a licence.
“You could be 12 years old and be in an autonomous vehicle. If you feel comfortable enough to allow your child to take an Uber, taking an autonomous vehicle might be even safer,” he said.
“Human don’t always drive logically. We don’t follow speed limits, we don’t always obey the law and autonomous vehicles consider that illogical behavior.”
— Malcolm Davidow, Schwartz Advisors
Fixed-route people movers, such as shuttles from an airport terminal building to a parking lot, at an amusement park or between hotels in Las Vegas, could easily be early applications of full autonomy, according to Kumar Saha, Toronto-based research director of mobility at Frost & Sullivan.
“You’ll see some of those applications coming in more restricted environments where the variables can be managed,” he said.
“One of the things there is some buzz in the industry about is grocery delivery. If you live in a certain neighbourhood and you order online, that grocery delivery could be by an autonomous shuttle dropping them off on your doorstep.”
Quite simply, autonomous vehicles represent a sea change that jobbers and repair shops have never dealt with before.
Silberg said the repair industry better “wake up” to the changes happening all around them and understand that the probability of these vehicles crashing is significantly lower than with human-driven cars and trucks because of the cameras, radar and other electronics.
“That doesn’t mean tires won’t need to be rotated – that kind of service won’t go away,” he said. “But you’ll need to be like the Genius Bar at the Apple store. Your car will be way more complex than that. Everything will be electronic so you better have that skill set.”
“These cars will all be connected and have software predictive analytics which can predict when you’ll need to replace your breaks. It will know in advance and guide you where to go. These are massive changes for the parts replacement business.”
Saha doesn’t see how the aftermarket can be anything but a follower because of the technical complexities and higher levels of security that autonomous vehicles will have.
“Technically, if you’re not driving and (the vehicle) is always connected, it could also be susceptible to someone hacking into it. Original equipment manufacturers would be ultra-cautious and competitive. They’ll say, ‘These vehicles are too precious to be handled by the aftermarket.’ They could potentially shut out the aftermarket,” he said.
“They’ll say, ‘These vehicles are too precious to be handled by the aftermarket.’ They could potentially shut out the aftermarket.”
— Kumar Saha, Frost & Sullivan
Going forward, autonomous vehicles will need to be “managed” rather than repaired most of the time.
“Essentially, you’ll be told when to go in for a service. A lot of those services could happen like a software update (for your computer),” Saha said.
One element that will undoubtedly garner more attention as autonomous vehicles become a bigger presence on our roads is entertainment. Things have come a long way from setting up a DVD player to keep your kids occupied in the backseat.
“If you’re hands-free and you don’t have to concentrate on the road, you can watch TV. There will potentially be an increase in entertainment services in a car,” Saha said.
Davidow doesn’t believe repair shops and jobbers need to be making any immediate strategic shifts to prepare for autonomous and electric vehicles because there are still more than 300 million cars and trucks with internal combustion engines on Canadian and U.S. roads
“That’s a massive base of vehicles that need to be serviced and repaired when they’re involved in collisions,” he said.