Autonomous Cars and The New Possibilities for eCommerce

In Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon series The Jetsons, which is set in a future full of gadgets, the most impressive of all was the one used to make cars disappear. The eternal problem of parking in the morning was resolved by a little gun that made the neighbour’s car vanish, in order to get a space.

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It’s a curious thing that, despite getting ahead of many technological desires that are a reality nowadays, science fiction keeps considering vehicles as a nuisance. And they really are, due to the volume and space they take up while they’re not in use. That’s why the answer of the future (or our present) isn’t in the little gun that makes objects vanish, it’s in giving cars even more importance in our day-to-day lives.

What kind of suggestion is that? More domination by vehicle manufacturers? Users want to make up for the lost time in the routine and the brands try to offer this… in exchange for a little more consumption. The car will stop being a place of transit between one event and another, and will turn into a setting for activities. And what better pastime is there for companies than to keep shopping?

Autonomy: Dreamed and real

Autonomous driving is a trendy subject that covers many more fields than motoring blogs can imagine, but there is still has ground to cover. The autonomy of a vehicle is measured on a scale of 5 levels that must go through rigorous viability tests before the dream is turned into news. The integration of software and the models by Tesla Motors are the most advanced in the market, but even these are still categorised within level 2.

  • Level 1: Minimum automatic functions (acceleration, control of the steering wheel and warnings). The driver stays alert and in constant control.
  • Level 2: Automatic functions (acceleration, driving and braking) that allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel, and their foot off the accelerator. The driver stays alert and in constant control.
  • Level 3: Automatic driving functions that allow the driver to intervene in critical moments only, providing that there are favourable weather and traffic conditions.
  • Level 4: Almost fully autonomous under which the car can perform all functions of driving, and respond to critical situations autonomously, except in extreme driving situations.
  • Level 5: A fully-autonomous system under which the car does not need any human assistance and can drive in all scenarios, including extreme weather situations.

Given that human beings won’t settle for aspirations less than fantasies of science fiction, a victory obviously won’t be celebrated until autonomous cars reach level 5.

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The transformation entails complex challenges in all industries involved, and doesn’t just affect electric cars, since this technology will be able to adapt to other kinds of vehicles. Although this will naturally imply an increase of between 7,000 and 10,000 euros on top of their usual price. Current estimations anticipate the circulation of autonomous cars by 2030, but some manufacturers like Mercedes trust in seeing fleets of autonomous trucks around the corner in 2020. These expectations have to be rapidly supported: no supercar will be able to leave the garage until there are laws and specific regulations which are more or less the same in all continents.

The autonomous car: A big shopping cart

We know about the consequences of autonomy in driving for multiple industries and service sectors, so what will it mean for e-commerce? To be honest, nothing more than what the smartphone and any portable device already means when connected to a Wi-Fi network, with the difference that some things will be able to go even faster and further.

The most repeated scenes by manufacturers and researchers of autonomous systems show how drivers and passengers will be able to interact inside the vehicle, or how a passenger can relax in a similar environment to the first class cabins of luxury airlines. In all these scenes, the key factor is the transformation of time.

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Experts of trends and car brands highlight the benefits for drivers to stop being drivers. What difference is there to the millions of daily passengers on public transport, who dedicate their time to read, browse social networks, play videogames and attend phone calls? In first place, the space, which turns into a private one and offers more favourable conditions for getting ahead with office work, or to watch a film without using earphones or being squeezed into the seat. Time is in second place, like we mentioned earlier because while passengers are not in control of journeys on public transport, the autonomous car user will be able to choose the route and decide how much time they are going to be inside the vehicle.

Those minutes on journeys could be invested in many constructive purposes, but the favourite ones in the predictions are work and leisure orientated to shopping. In a report by the firm McKinsey & Company, it was calculated that these autonomous systems can mean an influx of 140 billion dollars more every year for the e-commerce industry, thanks to the investment of free-time inside the car for online shopping. As a more specific figure, the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers assures that the increase will be an annual 43.2 billion dollars for 2021.

The car itself will be a large purchasing platform, which is partially thanks to built-in screens, but any device can be operated inside the vehicle without having to concentrate on the road. The key will be that all devices are integrated with the vehicle’s technology, and in a way that it takes an active role in the process. For example, the car will go shopping by itself while the owner is in the office, and this would boost local shopping and the marketplaces that bring options together inside the customer areas, as a cheaper alternative to buying in a marketplace with its own delivery service.

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This brilliant future for e-commerce imposes a need for strong, urban and intercity Wi-Fi networks and services that extend their connection to cars, in order to have immediate synchronisation among all users’ network devices: vehicle, mobile devices and their homes, in order to send notifications between them.

All this will make the autonomous car more like a robot than just a simple vehicle; a mechanical butler worthy of Hanna-Barbera which is only lacking voice control (a function that also already exists).

eCommerce in autonomous driving times

The repercussions of autonomous driving for e-commerce covers three areas:

The user’s experience

When parked, cars will no longer be useless and passive machines that are incapable of making any decisions for the driver, or to anticipate their needs and desires (and dangers on the road). Experts predict a future in which parking spaces will be dispensable, and this will result in gaining more urban space for stations to recharge, pick up, and make temporary stops. The businesses that offer free recharging will be accumulating points in the autonomous shopping experience, as this will be the weak point in the system due to the cost of electricity, and the battery life of the car.

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The main attraction is that the car is considered as a personal servant: it will go and pick up the shopping or run errands, and even look out for children at the school. It will still take several decades before we see this kind of trust, and this isn’t so much due to the technological capacity, but the parental mistrust and the risks of leaving children alone under the responsibility of a machine, despite the number of cameras on the vehicle.

The system is similar to the smart and autonomous shopping carts. The challenge lies in the order being ready when the car comes to pick it up, which means a huge logistic effort to synchronise all the systems involved which are used by humans, and between the autonomous car and other machines.

The autonomous car could calculate the real time required to arrive to any destination, and in the process the car could book a restaurant , as well as order from the menu, so the food is ready and served upon arrival. The car itself will be able to save payment details, manage bookings in hotels and for services, and search places nearby with a geolocator and recognition software of the surroundings. While the car circulates the streets, alerts of favourites and unknown alternatives in the area will appear for the driver. The car ‘learns’ about the environment even though it has maps saved in its computer, which are updated on the way and record new information (establishments that open or close, opening times, temporary closures for refurbishments…). In addition, knowledge of the driver and passengers will be saved in order for the car to make more personalised suggestions, depending on who is inside the vehicle.

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Naturally, there are the essential possibilities of e-commerce orientated to leisure, such as entertainment platforms with audiovisual or videogame catalogues that will start the battle to decide which consoles will be adapted to each model of vehicle or autonomous software. New systems for advertisements and promotions will be adapted to the screens in cars, and these will appear when the car goes through certain areas, either close to a physical shop, or when the car’s computer figures out certain needs depending on the day of the week, time, traffic level, driver routine, or the habits inside the vehicle. Autonomy in driving invites mobile SEO; like some say, the car will be a giant cookie.

The transport network

Transport companies will be the pioneers in autonomous driving systems since it won’t be lives at stake inside the vehicle. The possibilities instil huge fear in the sector due to a reduction in the workforce of drivers, as well as staff in warehouses and docks who will be replaced by an automated chain over time. But the process won’t happen over night, as the replacement of workers implies the implementation of some very expensive technology.

In any case, it’s a strong proposal and the change will be inevitable as there are increasingly less specialised drivers in the U.S. who are available for very long interstate journeys, apart from the fact that autonomous trucks are much more efficient in energy consumption and route planning than conventional vehicles and drivers.

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In the workforce of lower scale transportation, Uber is already testing autonomous driving through LiDAR technology, which is equipped with lasers at the front of the car to create a three dimensional map of the surroundings, lateral sensors to detect any obstacle and blind spots, 20 cameras on top of the vehicle and an antenna on the roof connected to the GPS, so that the car knows how to locate itself down to the exact second and millimetre.

Delivery companies

In Madrid, tests on groceries home deliveries have already been carried out by means of an autonomous system with Uber (UberEats), which also operates in Pittsburgh and follows the approach by Google and Amazon in their increasingly faster e-commerce strategy. But Uber must be admirers of Hanna-Barbera, and they aim even higher, defending that the future is in flying cars.

The ease that online marketplaces, businesses and even customers themselves have due to having their own delivery or pick-up vehicles poses a threat to conventional courier services. It won’t make sense to pay a third party when you can order your car to go and get a pick-up for you while you are not using it.

Courier companies will still be important for delivering international products, or which are unavailable in the customer area. However, it will be an expensive process to update the fleet and they will end up depending on the marketplaces that will also use drones as cheaper equipment, which is more accessible in certain areas and for small, lightweight deliveries.

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For the time being and users, this future continues to appear in a fantasy format before the need to resolve matters that impede the dreams from turning into a reality. It won’t be any use at all to claim that any car runs errands if batteries don’t offer many hours of real autonomy, or if there isn’t a bigger network of superchargers, or if cars are not electric. Imagine the increase in pollution levels if all cars never stopped circulating.

As for the dangers, these won’t only affect the steering wheel and the driving, as numerous tests and studies show a 90% reduction of accidents thanks to the autonomy. As in all technological advances within e-commerce, the debate on privacy and security for users is promptly updated, and in this case it addresses the risk of theft or interference with the systems in the vehicle. The largest companies in the world are leaving their rivalry aside to collaborate together in the future of autonomy (Google and Ford, IBM and General Motors, Intel and BMW, Nissan and ex-members of NASA), which shows that there is a very large opportunity about to arise in the market.

Are you an early adopter preparing to launch your e-commerce business into autonomous vehicles, or do you prefer to keep reading science fiction novels (and watch cartoons) for now?

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