Notes from the field: the ever-changing autonomous vehicle narrative

Work Truck Show 2020 day 1

It’s been fascinating to watch how the autonomous vehicle narrative has changed over the past year or so. Not so long ago a legion experts, many of whom were not entirely coincidentally connected to the VC-Startup complex, were predicting that 2020 was set to be the year in which self-driving cars and trucks finally arrived. Now, according to predictions by those who think they know best, it will take at least another decade before the true age of autonomy explodes.

Given that there already well over a billion vehicles on the road and the political complexity of pushing through new legislation and regulation, it is more likely that the transition to autonomy will take much longer than a single decade. It’s also probable that there will be multiple bursts in different categories rather than a single big bang.

Long-distance trucking is one of the most obvious candidates for bursting ahead of the pack. Since the technology required for operating safely on highways is relatively mature, it’s not surprising that the category is attracting a lot of attention and investment. Reducing labor costs through the elimination of the drivers, one of the most highly-touted potential benefits of autonomous trucks, remains a much greater challenge because their duties involve much more than simply driving the vehicle. In the short term, at least, autonomous trucks are likely to have drivers just as highly automated planes still have pilots.

Indeed, rather than possible cost-savings, the most likely catalyst for the proliferation of self-driving trucks will have no direct connection to autonomy at all. As the transition to EV trucks accelerates, manufacturers will simply integrate the latest autonomous driving, 5G connectivity, and cloud-based management technology as a standard feature into their latest vehicles – leaving to the fleet operators to decide if and when to move to driverless usage models.

Electrification will have a similar impact on the growth of other autonomous vehicle market categories. By all means listen to the latest autonomous vehicle narrative, but if you want to really understand what the hot market categories will be, pay closer attention to how the battery story is playing out.

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