The future of self-driving cars

ASU expert talks about the potential impacts autonomous vehicles will have on society

Google self-driving car
portrait of ASU professor Andrew Maynard

It’s almost the end of 2016 and despite all of the technological advances of the past 16 years, nobody has a flying car yet.

However, the next best thing may be on the horizon, according to Andrew Maynard (left), a professor in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. High-powered automobile and tech companies like Ford, Google and Tesla have heavily invested in the development of autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars.

And while many critics have focused on their potential safety risks, Maynard thinks their influence will have a strong impact on society. Maynard sat down with ASU Now to discuss what potential changes we may see when self-driving cars become the norm.

Question: What’s your background within the autonomous vehicle space?

Answer: I’m actually a physicist, and I used to be a health scientist. But these days I work in emerging technology, developmental policy and work around ideas of responsibility in innovation. So I don’t work deeply with autonomous vehicles, but there are a number of emerging technologies on my radar from the perspective of how do we develop them in a socially responsible way, and autonomous vehicles are one of those technology platforms. It means I come to this from a science and engineering perspective, but also social and policy perspective as well.

Q: What kind of changes do you see in society if self-driving cars become more prevalent in American culture?

A: I have a piece out in The Conversation which doesn’t quite touch on this, but what I look at is I ask the question, “If autonomous vehicles are successful, will the idea of actually driving your own car go the same way as smoking?” It’ll be seen as a social boor, something that people don’t expect you to do.

But the question around how it will change businesses and lifestyle is a really interesting one, of course incredibly speculative. But certainly if you get to the point where you assume that cars are completely autonomous, so you don’t need to drive behind the wheel at all — you can sort of be anywhere in the car and the car does everything for you — it obviously then becomes more of a space a little bit like public transport without the public, which really does change a lot of things.

Q: So what happens to these traditional types of entertainment industries like news and talk radio that are really centered around listeners tuning in while in their vehicles? Does radio become extinct?

A: The talk radio idea is a really interesting idea. One of the ways you can get a handle on that is just look at how people use radio outside the car, because there’s an indication that at one point people thought that radio was going to be a dying medium. And it didn’t die, obviously, in part because people listen in their vehicles, but people also sort of listen other places as well — especially if you look at the rise of podcasts and things.

So what I think you may actually find is a format like radio will survive, but it will obviously change to adapt to the situation. I don’t think there’s much evidence that people will just stop listening to the radio because they don’t have to drive, but I think that there will be some form of adaptation.

Q: And what about the television industry? Do you think it will adapt and we’ll start seeing shorter shows and vignettes — maybe 10-, 15-minute shows instead of your traditional 22 minutes?

A: The TV [question] is a really interesting one, and the first thing that came to mind was the awful streams you have in taxicabs. I haven’t found anybody that actually likes the fact that those sort of intrusive things go on, and I wonder whether that will impact people’s psyche as well when they’re thinking about what they can do in this car. Maybe people will start watching TV shows, but maybe they’ll actually end up using the car for other things simply because they’ve been conditioned that when you’re in a car there are certain things [that] you do, certain things that are comfortable to do, and certain things that aren’t.

Q: During the financial crisis of the late 2000s and early 2010s, we saw the government taking huge strides to make sure that the American automobile industry stayed afloat. What will happen to the auto industry and the businesses that revolve around it as autonomous vehicles become more commonplace?

A: There’s a huge challenge there. One of the things I think you’ll see play out is competition for this autonomous vehicle space. So already you’re having things like Ford investing heavy on moving toward autonomous vehicles or certainly introducing lines, so they’ve seen the writing on the wall and they’ve realized if they’re going to stay in business they’re going to have to be part of this. But they’re beginning to compete against the tech companies.

If Apple and Google start coming out with their own autonomous vehicles, that is big competition for the mainstream auto companies. And I think you’re going to see some really interesting and probably some quite aggressive tech challenges in that area with different companies from very different platforms beginning to muscle in and see this now as a tech market instead of vehicle market.

Q: Currently the tech industry is massive — almost comparable it to the auto industry these days, maybe even bigger. If a company like Google gets involved in the vehicle industry, you could see them in control of your phone, your internet and now your car. Do you see the American government stepping in as some sort of regulatory control at that point?

A: I guess the question is, how big and how disruptive does it get? The U.S. government typically tries to take a sort of soft-handed approach to things like this, until it becomes so disruptive that they feel they have to step in.

My guess is with this, because you’re not looking at the decimation of an industry but you’re looking at the reorganization of an industry, they’re probably going to watch and wait and see what happens. It’s certainly by no means guaranteed that these tech companies will muscle in, because there’s got to be a very specific edge that they have, and a way that they can use tech that they already have to create dominance in the autonomous vehicle market. So just because they’re big and they’re tech, doesn’t wash.

For instance, one of the things that’s going to be important is not only having the autonomous systems in the car, but having the ability to connect them to a much broader data network. So now, you can begin to see how Google might be thinking that they’ve got those broad bases of networks and data systems, and if they could fully leverage and utilize those with autonomous vehicles so you’ve now got the connected car, that’s the sort of thing that may give them the edge. And for these tech companies to get in, they’ve got to have that specific edge.

Q: So what are some of the aspects that prospective customers will look for when it comes to choosing an autonomous vehicle? Is safety going to be the No. 1 priority, or will it be something else?

A: I think safety is going to be a big thing, but I think you’ll find that pretty quickly, it’ll be overshadowed by convenience. People are not going to buy technologies that are either unsafe or they feel uncomfortable about, but as soon as people are moderately comfortable with the technology and they have a choice between something which is slow and very safe, or gets them where they need to be when they need to be there and seems to be safe enough, it’s convenience that’s going to be most important.

But then I suspect you get to the point where you get bored of the hidden extras. So again, you think of the analogies, say .mp3 players, or tablets are an even better one. Where how people originally conceived of the technology, where you’ve got a large smartphone in the case of a tablet, it was only when those technologies entered the market that people began to realize what else you can do with them.

So what I think you can be seeing once autonomous vehicles become mainstream, you can see sort of massive divergence in terms of how people use that technology in ways they’re not even thinking about at the moment. That, then, is going to create a really rich environment for consumers who are going to be the ultimate deciders of which of these trends they like and which of these trends they don’t like.

Q: It seems that the momentum behind the technology is really picking up in recent days. Do you have any idea of when we might be seeing these autonomous vehicles becoming more and more prevalent?

It’s incredibly hard to predict. And almost anything I tell you will be wrong (laughs), but we’re definitely seeing an acceleration now and there are indications we’ve almost come to a tipping point, where we’ve moved from mass autonomous vehicles being inconceivable to people accepting it’s going to happen.

As soon as we reach that — and that’s probably going to happen in the next 12 months or so — then it’s only going to be a matter of year or so, I think, before you see rapid acceleration in the availability of autonomous vehicles. We know from the past that you have these sort of transformative sort of changes where nothing seems to happen for years and years, then all of a sudden everything comes together to that point where you have massive acceleration and acceptance in tech development.

So it wouldn’t surprise me if within five years we’re seeing a fairly substantial autonomous vehicle market, and within 10 years we’re seeing a very strong market.

More Science and technology


Graphic illustration of daphnia, a form of zooplankton.

Study challenges traditional views of evolution

In new research, Arizona State University scientists and their colleagues investigated genetic changes occurring in a naturally isolated population of the water flea, Daphnia pulex. This tiny…

A studio portrait of Kyle Jensen, wearing a white shirt on a dark background lit with orange lighting

Understanding how our perception of AI affects its use

Editor's note: This expert Q&A is part of our “AI is everywhere ... now what?” special project exploring the potential (and potential pitfalls) of artificial intelligence in our lives. Explore…

A magicians hat and wand on a flat maroon background

Demystifying AI in higher education

Editor's note: This expert Q&A is part of our “AI is everywhere ... now what?” special project exploring the potential (and potential pitfalls) of artificial intelligence in our lives. Explore…