Now that we know autonomous vehicles are going to be a real thing, we are watching an entirely new industry unfold. Because of the sweeping societal changes that self-driving cars are likely to bring—they’ll change transportation the most, but also could affect the way we care for the elderly, live in our homes, deliver goods and services, shop, and more—even huge, multinational corporations that traditionally have little to do with automotives are looking to get in on the ground floor.
The reasons to get involved are compelling: less congestion on the roads, cleaner air, safer travel, more efficient everything, and, of course, loads and loads of cash. According to Intel, by 2050, autonomous vehicles will represent a $7 trillion business opportunity. Intel refers to it as a “passenger economy,” but mobility technologies are poised to disrupt a lot more than just riding around in cars.
The slideshow above highlights five big organizations that represent surprising entrants in the sector. See below for a bit more about why these unlikely players have joined the race to get driverless vehicles on the road—and what it all means for business and society.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan, social welfare organization was founded in 1958 as the American Association for Retired People. Its original mission had to do with getting older people access to health insurance, but today, AARP has evolved into a large, powerful political presence lobbying on behalf of those age 50 and older. It also provides resources on healthcare, taxes, wellness, and more to its members, and runs a popular senior discount program.
Because of its interest in all things having to do with the elderly, AARP wants to advance the development of driverless cars for their ability to transport older people with poor eyesight or other physical challenges that prevent them from driving themselves. One future scenario: those residing at assisted living facilities and other senior residential communities could be able to get around with access to a self-driving shuttle to take them shopping or to the doctor’s office. AARP is similarly interested in assistive smart home technologies, which could one day interface with autonomous vehicles.
AARP runs an innovation lab called The Hatchery in Washington, DC, designed to incubate startups led by people over 50, as well as technologies relevant to aging populations. AARP has also entered into a number of collaborations with other organizations that are developing or researching autonomous vehicles. We covered one such effort last month, in which Waymo and AARP are sponsoring research by Michigan State University and Texas A&M into how self-driving cars might affect the future workforce.
The insurance industry is keenly aware that, in an autonomous future, its traditional revenue streams are at risk of being greatly diminished. With driverless cars predicted to reduce accidents by as much as 90 percent, and ownership models transitioning from individuals to shared networks, there will be less need for individual car insurance policies. Smart homes are also likely to have better protections against intruders and theft. If things pan out that way, the insurance industry will find itself in a “change or die” situation.
That’s why most of the big insurers are already thinking ahead to how they might retain a corner of the market, and many see a big opportunity in selling driver data to third-party analytics companies. Allstate, the country’s largest insurer of personal policies, has embarked on a multi-year research project involving machine learning, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicle systems with the Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Stanford University (SISL). A spokesperson for Allstate told Insurance Journal the company plans to be “active participants in the research,” sharing data with SISL researchers and working alongside them in the lab.
Allstate has also launched Arity, a standalone telematics operation collecting driver data. In a 2016 interview with Insurance Journal, Allstate CEO Tom Wilson said Arity can “incorporate new data sources and enhance analytical capabilities in ways that we weren’t able to do when it was embedded in the insurance company. It’s a big enough platform today with the Allstate customers in it, and that will continue to grow, but we’d like it to grow even faster with a broader set of customers.”
UberEats and Postmates customers are already aware that McDonald’s has delved into the food delivery business. But the fast-food giant is also pursuing mobility partnerships and other opportunities to get involved in pushing autonomous vehicles forward. A 2015 Bloomberg report found that 70 percent of the company’s sales come via the drive-through window. But in a world with far fewer human drivers, riders may be more likely to go from Point A to Point B, skipping that impulse purchase of a Big Mac.
Then there’s the matter of logistics and fleet management. As of 2013, McDonald’s had a fleet of 3,500 vehicles in the U.S. alone, according to Automotive Fleet magazine. Just about any company overseeing a fleet of this size is sniffing around mobility, as the industry will probably see autonomous vehicles first hit the commercial market in fleet and delivery applications.
McDonald’s was a past corporate partner of the Techstars Mobility program, and the company has already begun to implement digital kiosks in their stores to take customers’ orders. Although (fake news alert) McDonald’s doesn’t have a restaurant operated entirely by robots in Phoenix—yet—it does have a serious desire to be part of the mobility conversation. One industry expert told us he thinks the company is open to many different mobility applications: electric vehicle charging stations at its thousands of locations across the U.S., drones or self-driving trucks for deliveries, or even a custom interface with autonomous vehicles that would enable riders to easily get a burger on the fly.
While Panasonic might be primarily known for producing consumer electronics, the Japanese corporation is also going all in on autonomous vehicles. According to a Reuters report published last October, the company, already the exclusive supplier of electric battery cells for Tesla’s Model 3, has been “reinventing itself as a provider of advanced auto parts” in order to compete with Bosch, Delphi (Aptiv), and other automotive suppliers that are also deeply involved in developing self-driving cars.
Panasonic created its advanced automotive division last spring, acquiring Spanish parts maker Ficosa International and pulling in 350 engineers, primarily from its television operation, to jumpstart the effort. Shoichi Goto, director in charge of vision and sensing technologies at Panasonic’s automotive R&D division, told Reuters that the company plans to nearly double its annual automotive business revenues to 2.5 trillion yen ($22 billion USD) by 2022.
At CES in January, the 100-year-old Panasonic debuted a luxurious autonomous vehicle that it says can double as a “relaxation station” for riders, complete with an entertainment center. digital sunshine, controlled air, pleasant aromas, biometric scanners, and business amenities.
Polaris is a leader in the production of off-road vehicles such as snowmobiles, but the Minnesota-based company is also developing autonomous vehicles for combat and military applications, where roboticized technologies are expected to save many warfighter lives. In 2011, the company acquired Global Electric Motorcars—maker of low-speed electric vehicles for use on closed campuses such as universities—from Chrysler, and Polaris began exploring driverless vehicles for both military and civilian use.
Last summer, the U.S. Army held a demonstration of an autonomous Polaris MRZR X, an automated version of an all-terrain vehicle already in use by infantry forces, at Fort Benning in Georgia. The demo included an MRZR X with a tethered drone, an automated M113 armored personnel carrier, and a self-driving Humvee with an automated machine gun, according to an Army Times report. An Army press release said the vehicle was developed by Polaris, Applied Research Associates, Neya Systems, the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, and the Office of Naval Research.
Because of its versatility and ability to be both manned and unmanned, Polaris said in a press release, the MRZR X can function as a robotic mule for hauling equipment, an autonomous resupply vehicle, a logistics support vehicle, a squad carrier, or a rescue vehicle. “In the future,” Polaris added, “the connectivity of the MRZR X will provide the ability to act as a networked node in the multi-domain battlespace.”