Driverless cars are an understandable fascination for a marketing oracle like Terry O’Reilly, who gave the keynote speech yesterday at The Walrus Live event in Toronto. He is a great performer, delivering solid content in an entertaining way, week after week, year after year. I am certainly a fan.
Driverless cars interest marketers because the automobile is so central to the design of our lives that we’ve become blind to the ubiquity of it and surprised by the indirect effects of change.
When he imagines the driverless world, O'Reilly still sees car dependency, which, in fact, may be increased. As automation relieves drivers of effort and stress, suburban car culture may become viable again. Urban sprawl may start to make sense in a way it doesn’t now, and it might appeal to people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered a long commute. The ability to sleep, read, work, and entertain yourself in the car might change the value equation.
O’Reilly speculates in this way about disruption in the insurance industry, healthcare, law, collision repair shops, the court system, land use, architecture, transit, the environment, alcohol marketing and consumption, personal media, air travel, highway amenities (motels and fast food), tourism and related retail businesses. And he is not wrong. (In fact, I've speculated about disruption in relation to transportation, inspired by The Walrus Talks, last year.) Take the driver out from behind the wheel – indeed, eliminate the wheel, and every aspect of our relationship with car travel is changed.
Being a marketing guy, O’Reilly sees marketing opportunities, as indeed do many large corporations. He sees a repurposing of parking space, renovation of homes, more alcohol consumption, more on-board media and marketing screens, and more automated home delivery of fast food and other merchandise.
However, this ignores the question of whether or not we’ll have any greater spending capacity as a result of this new technology. All of the imagined commercial benefits of driverless cars depend on the answer.
It’s quite possible that the car manufacturers, who will be liable for accidents due to software malfunction, will sop up a lot of the savings before they reach the consumer. It’s also possible that all the displaced workers in the legal profession, insurance claims adjustments, auto body shops, healthcare, transit, airlines, and highway rest stops will tip the economic impact from positive to negative.
Even the presumption that driverless cars will be electric, therefore an environmental benefit, is far from certain. We already have cars that park themselves, warn of lane changes, govern speed, detect rear collision dangers, self-steer, and navigate. Most of them burn gas. And, if they encourage more urban sprawl, green field development and hydroelectric consumption, the environmental impact may be profoundly negative.
O’Reilly is right about how disruptive driverless cars will be, but he displays an automatic assumption that technological advance leads to commercial or economic benefit. It’s significant that he imagines the world this way because it’s the excitement of his vision that fuels adoption of technologies without serious contemplation of the consequences. If people believe that something will liberate time, save money, and boost the economy, they will approach it with less caution and right thought. If they recognize that that the consequences will be both positive and negative, that there will be both winners and losers, they are more likely to see that careful planning is required to avoid the worst harms.
To justify my skeptical commentary, substitute ‘blockchain’, or ‘AI’ for ‘driverless cars’, and you’ll see why I think that O’Reilly’s imagination leaves off just at the point where inquiry is most needed.