26 June by Don Pepers. Robotic vehicles are just around the corner, technologically. Google has been testing driverless cars for some time now, already logging nearly 400,000 driverless miles on various streets and highways, with only one driverless accident so far. The head of Google’s program, Anthony Levandowski, suggested not long ago that we may see driverless cars on the market as soon as the year 2018.

I’m expecting to hear a lot more about Google’s efforts at this week’s Aspen Ideas Festival, where transportation is a major theme. In addition to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, headlining a discussion called “Transportation for the 21st Century,” we’ll hear visions for the future from executives at Tesla, Toyota, and others. And, since this is a “big ideas” festival, flying cars are also on the agenda. Robert Dingemanse, CEO of the Dutch company PAL-V Europe NV, will talk about his company’s half-plane, half-car hybrid.

It’s important to keep in mind that robotics will change everything about the driving experience, because once a car no longer has to be driven by a person, it will no longer have to be owned by one, either. In the not-too-distant future you’ll just use your smartphone to summon a car to come pick you up and drive you somewhere. Want to cut costs? There’s an app for that. Simply “share a ride” with someone else who’s headed in the same direction. Need groceries in a hurry? Buy them online and they’ll come to you in a tiny little “car” so small it can’t accommodate a human, but can still navigate safely down the road to your front door.

Perhaps the best way to think about how robotic vehicles will transform our lives is that cars themselves will be available “in the cloud.” In the same way you can now access your email, favorite music, or business contacts on any device, you’ll soon be able to access personal transportation on any device.

And the implications of non-owned cars – cars that are available “on demand,” as an app-like service – are truly profound:

$1·         Highly specialized vehicles – for deliveries, medical emergencies, single- vs. multi-passenger, long-distance, etc.

$1·         Fewer cars on the road in general, as consumers take advantage of the economics of collaborative trips and ride sharing.

$1·         Reduced demand for one-size-fits-all mass transit systems (like rail and bus), which will eventually only be found in very densely populated areas, or along very heavily traveled inter-city routes.

$1·         Driverless-only toll roads with no actual speed limits and average fast-lane speeds of 120 mph+.

Which brings me back to flying cars. To operate the PAL-V flying car yourself you’ll need a driver’s license and a private pilot’s license. But there are 500 times as many driver’s licenses as their are pilot’s licenses, so the total market for flying autos will be just 0.2% the size of the overall auto market. Unless, of course, flying cars are robotically operated. To be genuinely successful, they will have to be.

In other words, robotic technology will soon put cars “in the cloud” not just metaphorically, but physically as well!

Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images