Driverless Car of the Future, advertisement for “America’s Electric Light and Power Companies,” Saturday Evening Post, 1950s. Credit: The Everett Collection.
Driverless Car of the Future, advertisement for “America’s Electric Light and Power Companies,” Saturday Evening Post, 1950s. Credit: Courtesy / The Everett Collection

The idea of driverless cars has been very intriguing to me for a long time. Never a doubt that they would become a reality and certainly quicker than most people thought.  Perhaps seeing demonstrations more than 10 years ago of prototype auto vehicles as a trustee for the Southwest Research Institute here in San Antonio built that conviction. 

As with most technologies, the sophistication and success from those early days has propelled at lightning speed. Other technologies have developed even more quickly that are synergistic with a driverless car, like voice recognition. That’s important to me. If my driverless car speeds past a shop that cues an impulse, my turnaround request should be heard. After all, this is my car right? Akin to a magic carpet. I can even keep my arms folded like a sultan. 

What will I be doing in the drivers’ seat? That’s the thought that intrigues me the most.   The sights along the drive to my office are pretty well known. If I was behind the wheel of a driverless car, they would become mind numbingly boring after the first few trips. You see, having to drive is a distraction – an activation. Your eyes and ears and even body position are required in driving mode. If your car is the driver, all those requirements go away. Think about it. If my car is a good driver, its likely safe for me to be in the back seat, doing anything but keeping my eyes on the road. Back seat drivers will be ignored.  Just like I ignore my husband when he says slow down. 

With more than 250 million cars and trucks in operation in the U.S., the potential for car manufacturers to quite literally “reinvent the wheel” is massive. In fact, the market opportunity for driverless cars is so great that companies operating in completely different industries from automobile manufacturers are “putting the pedal to the metal” in becoming the leading manufacturer for driverless cars. The list of companies in pursuit of manufacturing a driverless car totals more than 18 companies and includes major global auto manufacturers such as Toyota, Ford, GM, Nissan, Tesla, BMW, and Honda, among other auto makers as well as leading technology firms such as Google, Uber, and, until recently, Apple.

The recent reports signaling that Apple has abandoned its efforts to develop a driverless car are important. According to Bloomberg, Apple’s plans for autonomous vehicles no longer include manufacturing their own vehicle. Hundreds of employees working on the project have either quit or been reassigned. Realizing the scope and drain on costs of developing its own vehicle, the company appears to have pivoted to developing a flexible autonomous driving technology system that can be integrated with the vehicle manufacturing efforts of an existing auto maker.

Yes, one of the biggest challenges with driverless cars will be sheer boredom. If you doubt that cars will become driverless, think again. Airplanes have been driverless for quite a while (autopilot). A commercial airline pilot recently described the time in the cockpit of a long flight as mind numbing. Isn’t that comforting? 

No, in true American fashion, we will likely take the opportunity to redesign our vehicles so that the time on the road can be more productive or more fun. Our magic carpet on four wheels will likely get larger, roomier for all manner of amenities from Keurig machines to beer kegs. Perhaps we will be pumping kegs instead of pumping breaks.  DWI’s a thing of the past? Who knows, most millennials want a standing desk at the office, so why would they sit on the way there?

Yes, I’m enjoying fantasizing about all the implications for the driverless vehicles. It’s the best of both worlds. My car, with my selected bells and whistles going where and when I want to go. That’s as American as apple pie. Will the neck breaking speed of this reality create fear and anger? You betcha. Witness Otto, a company recently purchased by Uber, and their first venture which sent a Budweiser decorated semi with more than 50,000 beers from an Anheueser Busch facility in Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The successful trip flanked with police and staff to ensure nothing went off course created hundreds of comments on Facebook mostly regarding jobs and safety concerns. I don’t think Anheueser Busch expected a PR debacle for this venture with “Otto,” but it is something this technology must keep in mind. I seriously doubt “Ready or not, here we come” is going to work well.

I am particularly excited about the possibilities and look forward to the 100 plus miles per hour that I’ll be traveling on Texas Highways to all the cities and events that I love. It will happen when we all have driverless cars.

More to come.

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Jeanie Wyatt

Jeanie Wyatt is the founder, chief executive officer and chief investment officer of South Texas Money Management.