COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

A buggy-whip moment in history

It’s a singular opportunity to personally experience the demise of an entire commercial ecosystem, but we are on the verge of just such a transition. We should all pause to take notice.

With self-driving vehicles just a few years away from commercial availability, there will come a cascade of fundamental changes in those industries and businesses that support the current piloted vehicle zeitgeist. Several structural changes will either eliminate certain business models or dramatically change them.

As autonomous vehicles become more prevalent, the number of road collisions will decrease significantly, resulting in much safer travel. This will greatly reduce claims on auto insurance policies, demand for repair services and replacement parts, and transport of inoperable vehicles from accident sites.

Therefore, insurance premiums will drop and in some cases no longer be necessary. The repair industry will convert to preventive maintenance service centers or simply go out of business because dealers will offer lifetime preventive maintenance for a monthly fee. No one will be able to work on their own cars anymore, even for simple things, because all the operational components will be integrated into the navigation and control mechanisms.

Leasing will become more popular because the rate of innovation of automated vehicles will increase the appetite for the next better version of the vehicle. Each generation will be safer, have more environmental and entertainment features, and evolve into the roadway version of luxury cars on a train.

Automated vehicle models will be designed for various uses. For example, a large cross-country model will have sleeping bunks, a galley, television, bathroom, mobile Internet, observation seats and so on. The vehicle will travel day and night if you wish, stopping only to refuel, which can be done automatically as well, because fueling centers will also automate.

Fueling centers will automatically sense the type of vehicle and fuel requirement, fill up the vehicle and wirelessly debit the vehicle’s coded payment method. Tire pressure, oil level, coolant and other vital signs will be automatically checked and corrected if necessary, through a multipurpose port on the side or bottom of the vehicle.

You could take your family on a trip to Vancouver, Canada, from San Diego, sleeping along the way, stopping for a walk or shopping as you wish, over a two-day period. You could travel from San Diego to New York City in four or five days, refueling automatically, playing games with the kids all the way.

Since mechanical repair centers will be nearly out of business, service will be mostly large-component replacement: whole engines, transmissions and control systems, for example. If leasing increases, you’d just turn in your leased vehicle and get a replacement. The leasing company will handle recycling and refurbishing the vehicles.

Companies that provide labor rates and part costs for insurance claims and repair centers will be out of business as well for obvious reasons: Nobody will need the data.

Control-system engineers, technicians and service centers will proliferate. There will be two types. One would focus on systems checking and preventive maintenance. Another would specialize in repairs and upgrades of components and software.

With the great reduction in collisions, organ donations will decrease dramatically, which will cause a crisis in the health care industry for cornea, liver, heart and lung transplants. Emergency room traffic will go down in the same proportion, relieving the hospital of operating expenses that are often not revenue-producing. So hospital profitability will improve.

However, other health care fields will be negatively impacted. Prosthetics will decline in sales, as will the service demands from surgeons, physical therapists, occupational therapists, mental health counselors and in-home care of paraplegics.

Commuting will improve dramatically. With all vehicles traveling in a network of communication, the peristaltic progress of dense traffic patterns will smooth out. Vehicles will travel steadily in relatively close quarters and moderate speeds, delivering passengers to their destinations in much less time during rush hour than when each car was driven by a person. The lack of accidents will eliminate the roadway clots and gawkers blocking traffic behind them, so traffic reporters will be out of work.

Self-driving vehicles will essentially re-create the safety, convenience and reliability of public transportation, which will greatly reduce the pressure to create those public systems. Municipal transportation systems will move away from rail and instead offer public autonomous buses traveling along the same roadways, which can handle much more traffic volume because of optimized space and speed of vehicles on the road.

You can imagine more changes resulting from this buggy-whip moment in our evolving technology of transportation. Just as we no longer need to flog the horse, we’ll soon no longer need to steer the wagon.

Feel free to apply these projections to your investment strategies, but don’t blame me if your timing is off.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He is vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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