The future of autonomous vehicles could mean big changes to how we transport large quantities of goods.
The future of autonomous vehicles could mean big changes to how we transport large quantities of goods. Credit: Flickr CC / Paul Sableman

San Antonio’s new chapter of the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business hosted a special panel presentation titled Implications of Fully Autonomous Vehicles and their Impact on San Antonio Wednesday evening at the Pearl.

Introduced by Red McCombs himself and moderated by the chapter’s Co-President Hunter Stanco, the discussion yielded a pragmatic assessment of how experts foresee autonomous cars to be rolled out.

The panel included an expert in autonomous drones, a serial tech investor, an experienced car manufacturer, and an auto insurance specialist. With a billionaire car salesman as the lead-in, the industrial diversity within the panel revealed several differences of opinion as well as points of consensus in predicting the future of autonomous vehicles.

Some industry professionals have argued that rideshare services with autonomous vehicles will be so affordable that car ownership will “all but end” by 2025.

McCombs isn’t worried about it.

“I think it’s not going to be something that everyone wants, which means that it’s just another thing to market to customers,” he said. “It may give another group access to cars that don’t use vehicles now, and that will be another solid market, but car ownership won’t be replaced.”

Mike Hasler, a former executive at General Motors and lecturer at the McCombs School, summed up the prime challenge in the transition towards vehicular automation early on in the conversation. “Autonomous vehicles are predictable in their predictability. Humans are predictable in their unpredictability.”

“Autopilot has existed for thousands of years, since someone tied a rope to a rudder,” said Cory Hallam, director of UTSA’s Center for Innovation and Technological Entrepreneurship (CITE), who has practical experience in automated aircraft drones. “That’s fine for the open ocean, but the problem is when you need to make decisions and not crash. That’s when a human has to take over.”

Rob Adams speaks about Texas Venture Labs.
Rob Adams speaks about Texas Venture Labs. Credit: San Antonio Report / Scott Ball

Rob Adams, a serial investor and director of Texas Venture Labs at the McCombs School, said business transportation needs will outrun consumer use of automated vehicles.

“There are bits and pieces that will be adopted very fast, like interstate trucking that goes through the night,” he said. “The cost advantages are just so great that the economics will probably overwhelm the obstacles to their adoption.”

In order to avoid the interface between automated trucks and unpredictable human drivers, some early advocates are suggesting dedicated lanes for automated vehicles. That could provide testing grounds for these vehicles without requiring full automation in urban environments.

Earlier this week, an autonomous truck delivered 50,000 Budweisers in Colorado.

When it comes to consumer use, however, Hallam, the panelist with the most technical expertise, called himself a pessimist.

“Two cost issues prevent full autonomy,” he said. “First, the cost of the technology itself. On a Google automated car like those roaming Austin, the LIDAR alone costs over $80,000. Second, cyber attacks are dangerous. The level of integration on vehicle systems could allow people to shut down a fleet of vehicles at all once.”

He expects full availability for regular consumers to take about 40 years. In the meantime, consumers can anticipate more “driver assistance” attributes like automatic parking and accident-avoidant breaking rather than full automation.

Can autonomous cars be programmed? That question sparked several more, which panelists addressed during the event.

“The tech is there, but the implementation is not,” Hasler said. “One question is, who is liable for accidents? Eventually, accidents will be litigated. Will it be the car company? The programmer? The moral and ethical questions that no individual wants on their conscience are in front of us. There are big decisions on the way.”

Even the most pessimistic analysts agreed that most cars will eventually have automated features, which will substantially change society and the accessibility and risks within its systems.

McCombs School alumnus Michelle Easton takes a photograph during the presentation.
McCombs School alumnus Michelle Easton takes a photograph during the presentation. Credit: San Antonio Report / Scott Ball

Jon Michael-Kowall, assistant vice president of innovation for USAA’s property and casualty insurance business, shared an insurance company’s standpoint with the crowd. He acknowledged that automated cars mean there will be a decrease in the number of accidents, but also an increase in the cost to consumers for each accident.

“From USAA’s perspective, we see it as an opportunity to save lives and offer services to our clients,” he said. “As auto accidents decrease, some revenue will be lost in the insurance industry.

“More autonomy, especially for aging or disabled individuals,” he added, “is going to fundamentally change their quality of life by giving them access to real mobility.”

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.