REINVENTING THE WHEEL: HOW AUTONOMOUS DRIVING COULD IMPACT THE TRAVEL INDUSTRY

It’s late-2015 in the shadow of Catalunya’s famous Muntanya Montserrat, 60 kilometres outside Barcelona, and I’m sitting in the passenger seat of an Audi RS7 as we race towards the first bend of the Parcmotor Castellolí racetrack at 200 kilometres-per-hour. The ‘driver’ is stretched back, hands not placed on the steering wheel, nor feet near the pedals. As Michael Knight’s Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT) did in the mid-1980s, the RS7 takes control. The ‘driver’, a mere safety prop for journalists, doesn’t touch a thing as our very own KITT – our self-driving sports car goes by the name Robby – weaves its way around the challenging track at breakneck speeds.

Packed to the brim with a multitude of sensors, peerless GPS systems, military-grade radar, ultrasound, laser-scanners and a 3D camera, the German manufacturer’s impressive demonstration is still some way off being matched by a road car. Announcing the latest iteration of their A8 luxury sedan last summer, though, Audi laid claims to being the first production car to reach Level 3 autonomy. With systems like Tesla’s Autopilot cruising at Level 2 – which means the car can drive itself in specific situations, but demands that the driver pays attention and is ready to take over at any moment – Level 3 means the A8 is the first production vehicle that will let the driver actually stop paying attention.

Courtesy, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Courtesy of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

With five levels of autonomy either on the roads or in advanced development, and billions being spent by manufacturers hoovering up startups and tech know-how, public confusion about what ‘self-drive’ actually means is escalating. From parking assist to our friend Robby, the current state of the autonomous automotive industry conjures that old urban legend of the Winnebago driver who successfully sued the manufacturer when her motor home crashed after leaving it in ‘cruise control’ to go and make a cup of tea. Duping major news outlets at the time, the story seems ominously believable amid this current technology race.

With terms like ‘self-driving’, ‘driverless’, ‘autonomous’ and ‘automated’ readily bandied about, the industry is making a considerable hash of conveying to their buyers exactly how these new technologies work. With Audi’s Level 3 launch, it seems only a matter of time until we have our first legitimate Winnebago situation. Or worse.

“If there’s inconsistency with how things are named across different semiautonomous features that have different capabilities, that can lead to confusion for consumers, both when they’re purchasing systems and when they’re using systems”, says Hillary Abraham, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied how humans interact with driver assistance systems. “It’s important to understand how terminology can affect a consumer’s preconceived notion of what they might be capable of, and how it relates to other systems that might be on the market.”

Aptiv-Lyft Self-Driving Taxi
Aptiv-Lyft Self-Driving Taxi

Confusion reigns too over how these vehicles will integrate into society. Lyft last week partnered with self-driving technology company Aptiv to offer rides in robot taxis during Las Vegas’ major tech convention CES; and a small fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions have been announced to offer trips to the 4,000 residents of the Villages, a gated community for pensioners in San José. Taxis seem the most likely driverless vehicles to become ubiquitous – but Tesla and Daimler are experimenting with autonomous trucks, and Ford have been testing an autonomous pizza-delivery car. To varying levels, every major car manufacturer is heavily invested in this new dawn of transportation – but how will its future look?

One industry whose future might look bleak is that of air travel. “We can disrupt the entire business of domestic flights”, said Sven Schuwirth, Audi’s then Vice President of Brand Strategy and Digital Business on the occasion of Robby’s Catalan escapade. Think about it: Barcelona to Madrid, a trip at more than six hours by road (before locating and parking at your destination) currently seems a tiresome option over a one-and-a-half-hour flight. When travelling by car becomes, in essence, personal first-class travel, you will begin to take into account time spent getting to and from airports; needless waiting around; intrusive security checks… Throw as many liquids as you desire in the boot, dictate your destination, and kick back.

Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car

The same goes for hotels. At 15 hours, Los Angeles to Portland today looks like a two-day drive with an overnight stay on the way. Setting off at 9pm in the near-future, you can be there by midday with a night’s sleep in you. With electric cars, battery technology, and renewable fuels all advancing in parallel to driverless tech, rejecting domestic flights looks like a serious and sustainable proposition. Business hotels need to begin addressing their value. Quick smart.

That’s because the near-future is drawing ever closer. What might have been considered sci-fi fantasy just a decade ago is looking surprisingly tangible. Having recently invested $1 billion in Argo AI, a robotics company created by former Google and Uber leaders, Ford has mooted 2021 as the date for unveiling their first full autonomous (Level 4) vehicle, a milestone shared by manufacturers like BMW, Fiat-Chrysler and Volvo. Hyundai have pitched 2030 for urban autonomy (self-driving on highways is naturally a much simpler proposition), while Tesla CEO Elon Musk famously suggested that drivers of his cars would be able to sleep behind the wheel by as early as 2019. If self-driving cars are likely to affect your industry, then now is the time to start making changes.

If the technology itself looks forboding to the hotel industry, perhaps there is hope in how that technology is owned. Those already working in this area of the automotive industry are largely unanimous in the belief that car ownership will dramatically decline, instead with it becoming commonplace for fleets of cars to operate on some kind of subscription model. If that subscription model had a type of ‘sub-letting’ flexibility, it’s not inconceivable to think that you could lease your car to the hotel for the duration of your stay (money being deducted from your stay or added as loyalty points), and it then being used for limousine services or excursions.

© Arrowstreet
Courtesy of Arrowstreet

Valet parking? Forget it – step out your car at the front door and it’ll do the rest; highly exact driving manoeuvres capable of a space-saving of up to 80 per cent. Existing car parks could be turned into green space, or monetised by leasing or converting to new food and beverage offerings. And it’s not just urban hotels that could benefit from this impending revolution. Out-of-town business hotels have masses of car-parking space – if that could be repurposed, then there’s a chance you could hijack whoever has decided to sleep through their LA-to-Portland self-drive. Lure them with facilities their car simply cannot provide. “Why should a hotel look like a hotel today?” says Sven Schuwirth, discussing the feasibility of drivers soaking up all the amenities a hotel of the future has to offer before returning to their cars to sleep.

“Today’s cars are shaped to be only an emotional piece, and to be very comfortable and safe”, he continued. “So in an autonomous world where cars do not have accidents anymore, the cars do not have to have a small amount of glass, a lot of metal, a lot of bumpers, and all that stuff. It could be a bit more transparent. Once you decide you want to go for an autonomous drive or a piloted drive, then something happens in your car, so your car transforms inside and the interior changes.” Your four-wheeled friend could become a miniature motor home.

Ace Hotel Pittsburgh
Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, could roadside hotels harness what urban lifestyle hotels offer beyond the bed?

Roadside hotels might be required to morph into some type of new wave service station – as such, much consideration would need to be put into giving drivers reason to stop. Rich in space, but poor in usefulness, the hotels of the past could serve as a means for showcasing local businesses, artisans and creatives. Cafés, bars, curated shops or galleries, health facilities, or co-work environments – the impact that autonomous driving could have on city planning and urban sprawl (as substantial commuting distances being less of an inconvenience) might see this new ‘service station’ become a type of community hub, with travellers not needing to plug themselves into inner cities to experience a region’s unique culture.

Through a fog of confusion, uncertainty, and billions of dollars of investment, the driverless revolution is slowly coming into view. The travel industry must heed the seismic shift that awaits, should it not want to feel the same impact that Hollywood or the music industry did, having dragged their heels for so long over digital formats and streaming. As impending as the motor industry promises or not, one certainty is that this technology will arrive. The wheel is being reinvented, and to be asleep at it will no longer be the cause of havoc. That said, those behind the wheel of a progressive travel business might not want to get caught napping. It is high time to be alert to a fascinating moment in transport history. A moment that could change the way the world looks forever.

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.