Any self-respecting consultant should on occasion make predictions as to what the future shall hold. Thankfully, few people actually keep score.

At the start of a new year when people are looking forward, I figure it is fitting for me to take a stab at this. I mean, why not?

In many of my past blogs and in speeches around the country, I have conveyed how we are just entering a revolutionary new machine age dominated by digital technologies which will transform our lives in ways that we cannot fully imagine.

To say there will be the birth of entire new industries, borne out of this transformation, would be an understatement.

I think we have begun what is now an inevitable long march in which artificial intelligence will lead to computers becoming truly self-aware. That in itself could very well make people largely irrelevant if not extinct.

But relax, the day in which we have a planet without human beings is still a good ways off. In the meantime, we should take advantage of our amazing gift to appreciate not only our immediate surroundings but our world and our universe.

And that’s a pretty cool thing. So we best make the most of our brief moment in the sun. It’s why I get out of bed in the morning, and try to serve others in my role as a consultant.  Heck, it’s why I write this blog. We can affect change.

Not If But When

You have heard it before and you will hear it again that self-driving cars are coming. That’s a given. The debate no longer surrounds if, but when.

And while we may still be some years away from seeing autonomous cars and trucks streaming down the world’s roads in large volumes, vehicles today have become rolling sensor and processing platforms. Even low-cost models have more sensing capabilities than fighter jets a decade ago.

When this pilotless-vehicle technology does comes of age, our world will dramatically change. For one thing, our roads should become safer. Autonomous vehicles could save up to 300,000 lives per decade in the United States, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Paying for the Miles

With the advent of self-driving vehicles, there is a likelihood that the desire to own a car will fall. Think about it. The utilization rate of automobiles in the U.S. is now about 5 percent, which means 95 percent of the time (23 hours a day), a car sits somewhere and depreciates.

In the not-so-distant future, autonomy will make it possible for unmanned automobiles to be summoned, via an app, to your location for as little or as long as you will need it.

You don’t pay for the car. You pay for the miles. I think young people especially will jump on this like a dog on a bone.

Traffic jams will occur less frequently, and we as passengers will have extra time to work our phones, computers and with other people.

The changes will be so large, so profound, that we will change how we view transportation in general, becoming a relatively seamless act as we “transition” from place to another without losing our connectivity and focus of thought.

Transportation as Service

Automakers sense this is the future and in response will largely pivot from engines, gears and wheels to software, content and “user experience.”

Ford Motor Co. and Google will announce a partnership this coming week at the Consumer Electronics Show to build self-driving vehicles with Google’s technology, a huge step by both companies toward a new business of automated ride sharing.

Google currently has 53 test vehicles and has covered 1.3 million miles in autonomous mode in Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas.

Ford CEO Mark Fields has repeatedly said Ford now thinks of itself “as a mobility company.” Said Ford Chairman Bill Ford: “We have to make great cars and trucks today but we also have to imagine a future of transportation as service.”

And don’t you know that related industries, including telecommunications, software, media, freight transportation, semiconductors and insurance, are going to have to fall in line and start thinking of transportation as service.

Driving Savings, Productivity     

The bottom-line savings alone are formidable. “Beyond the practical benefits, autonomous cars could contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the US economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion,” wrote Ravi Shanker, Morgan Stanley lead analyst covering the North American auto and related industries, in a research note.

For the U.S., it could represent 8 percent in annual GDP, the reallocation of which could have major implications of its own.

Again, this paradigm shift will impact everyone. For companies dependent on shipping products, the supply chain management implications are huge, and could possibly influence what kind of products are provided and where manufacturing plants are built.

And you can bet that as more autonomous vehicles become prevalent, all sorts of billion-dollar opportunities will arise and new industries spawned.

Skepticism Is Only Human

Still, this idea of a driverless vehicles is not an easy sell with much of the public. It is difficult for many people, myself included, to imagine putting their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, into the passenger seat of an autonomous car.

But I believe that the technology will prove itself in terms of safety, reliability, savings and convenience. The day may come when public opinion will shift to “I don’t want to share the road with people driving their own cars.”

California Being California

Mind you, there will be plenty of speed bumps along the way, including building sufficient infrastructure and government regulation.

California, being California, wants to regulate self-driving cars to the degree that it would all but make Google’s driverless vehicles illegal. Proposed regulations would require individuals licensed to operate autonomous vehicles to be present in these new-age cars at all times.

The Department of Motor Vehicle rules also say these drivers must be able to take control of the vehicles at any time, essentially requiring pedals and a steering wheel.

It is interesting to note that DMV’s proposals are getting pushback, even from politicians, who fear that California might relinquish its leadership role.

“Autonomous-vehicle technology will continue to advance in spite of DMV regulation, but it may well relocate to states [or nations] that adopt a more flexible and accommodating regulatory structure,” said Michael Cunningham, senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council.

“We would stand to lose the economic benefit of having this cutting-edge industry based in California, and we’d fail to secure the full safety, mobility and access benefits that autonomous vehicles could offer.”

Said California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom: “We must guard against unreasonably holding back California from doing what it does best — inventing the future.”

With self-driving cars, the future is here. The potential gains — less fatalities and injuries due to driver errors, emergency response and medical savings, less lawsuits, reduced road congestion and more efficient use of time — could ripple through every aspect of the economy and our mobile lives.

And that’s a pretty cool thing. I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at or at 972-767-9518.