The self-driving car has a new kindred spirit: the delivery drone.
Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos made headlines this week by proclaiming that within a few years, he wants to have unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, flying around and delivering packages. The allure is obvious: The drones could autonomously deliver toilet paper, medicine and other essentials at any time of day or night, without running into traffic or asking for a cigarette break.
"I know this looks like science fiction,” Bezos said in an interview with CBS’ "60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night. “It's not.”
Many cynics saw Bezos’ proposal, coming a day before the e-commerce bonanza known as Cyber Monday, as a naked play for publicity. The logistical and technological challenges are immense, they point out, and it’s still not legal to use drones for commercial purposes in the United States.
But even if Amazon never manages to launch “Prime Air,” as it is calling its drone delivery concept, the auto industry should see it as a wake-up call.
Amazon knows logistics
Amazon may not specialize in building drones, but it knows retail and logistics as well as any company out there. And just like Google with its autonomous cars, it would love to take human drivers and pilots out of the transportation equation.
That would have huge implications for how the machinery sold by the auto industry -- cars, trucks, and so on -- are designed and marketed.
Automakers like Nissan are already racing toward the autonomous future, although by land instead of air. Amazon’s proposal is a clear example of why: The first automaker to deliver self-driving delivery vans would surely be met with open arms.
As any futurist will tell you, that’s just the beginning of the possibilities. Imagine unmanned taxis that rush to the aid of smartphone-wielding pedestrians. Rental cars that drive themselves to the renter’s home. And so on.
All this would make owning a vehicle less essential, giving people the freedom to use communal car-sharing services, or at least, drive much less than they do today.
It is a small but rapidly growing market. The consultancy Frost & Sullivan says car-sharing services have about 70,000 vehicles and 3 million members globally this year, but predicts that the number of users will increase nearly ninefold to 26.2 million by 2020.
Automakers are thinking about this potential future, too, and coming up with business plans that would let them adapt to a changing marketplace.
One example is Daimler AG and its car-sharing service Car2go, which allows customers in more than 20 cities worldwide -- including Denver, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C. -- to borrow a car on the street using a smartphone app and then drop it off when they reach their destination.
It is a clear recognition that people can save money by getting rid of their cars, and that by providing a pay-as-you-go service as a substitute, there is still money to be made. (Not coincidentally, it also creates a market for Daimler’s tiny Smart ForTwo.)
Google and Amazon may not succeed in their exact quests, but their dreams will push automakers and the rest of the transportation industry in a new direction. And as remote as the chance of making money may seem today, it is a direction that automakers cannot afford to ignore.
Because, as that great philosopher of business Wayne Gretzky once advised, you don’t skate to where the puck has been. You skate to where it’s going to be.