Making waves

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Resident columnist Gregory Smith looks toward the future of driverless and autonomous cars and their effect on tire development.

The future of the entire automotive industry is heading toward autonomous cars, with almost all major car companies heavily invested in the idea. This is a truly fascinating technology and it’ll likely be the biggest fundamental change to the industry since the car replaced the horse! The end goal is that cars will drive themselves, without any human interaction. This is a true game changer and one that will send ripples, both positive and negative, across the automotive industry.

A major driver toward autonomy is the increased convenience and flexibility it will offer customers. For example, people could start work the moment they sit in their car at home and ask it to drive them to the office. From their car, they sit back, open their laptop, and start reading emails or joining online meetings – effectively reducing their commuting time to zero. Once at the office, the car can drop the passenger right outside the front door before going off to park itself. It doesn’t really matter where it parks; if the office is in the middle of a city it could park itself miles away, where parking is cheap. Or the car could run its own taxi business while the owner is at work; ka-ching!

At the end of the working day, the owner hails the car from a mobile app and it comes to take them home again. Then perhaps out for drinks, which brings us onto another key advantage of autonomous cars: the safety aspect. Humans will only ever be ‘so’ good at driving cars; and while we can improve the driving test and educate people not to use their phones or otherwise get distracted, we cannot fundamentally improve a human’s ability to drive a car. We will only ever have two feet with which to control the accelerating and braking of four wheels. Our reaction times will never be faster than they are now. Some of us will continue to get drunk, distracted or tired while driving. However, computers will not. Computers will never get tired during a long drive, or have too many beers at the local watering hole.

Furthermore, computers are getting to a point where they more or less equal a human’s ability to drive a car – the difference being that computers will continue to improve. Their processors will get faster and more powerful. Their sensors will continue to get more accurate and faster reacting. Their software will get more advanced and more able to act accordingly in a wider range of situations. They will continually become better and better drivers, while us humans will not. Meaning that after some time (and not a lot of it), computers will become much better drivers than any human can ever be. They will never be perfect, but they don’t need to be; they are replacing humans, who are far from perfect anyway. Also, there will likely never be a situation where there are absolutely no road traffic accidents. However, the number of accidents will drastically fall and fewer people will be hurt.

If this is the game changer that I at least think it will be, how will it affect the tire industry? The short answer is that no one is entirely sure, although we can make some predictions. I suspect the number of cars sold will be lower, but they will each drive more miles. More households will be able to have just one car that could, for example, drive the morning commute before returning home, where it can be used to run errands. Later, it can return to work on its own for the afternoon commute.

One car that will drive more miles will mean roughly the same total amount of tire wear and hence roughly the same amount of tire sales as there are currently. The big change is that the requirements of the tires will be very different. Why would the buyer care about the tire’s handling performance, when they aren’t the one handling the car? Instead, ride comfort will likely become far more important, along with noise and rolling resistance. Durability will also be more important as people might treat their cars more like appliances and be even less likely to check the tires. Finally, smart tire technology will become more important, with an increasing need for the car to know what tires it’s running on, as well as having more information as to their condition.

Autonomous cars will cause both positive and negative ripples across the tire industry. Tire technology will still be important – just different. I can’t wait.

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