FUTURE TRANSPORT will be very different, like this AT Black Knight Transformer, but it will also create many new jobs.
ALWYN VILJOEN tells workers in car factories and on sales floors how current trends in transport will affect their jobs
WITH future transport systems predicted to see far fewer vehicles sharing a lot more rides, workers in South Africa’s car trade are asking how this will affect their jobs.
Last year, the auto trade counted 115 000 high-skill employees at factory level and 496 000 employed in retail, distribution, servicing and repair sectors.
For all these people, the hard reality is that autonomous cars will see factories and car sales scale down drastically. But the millennials will still need cars, and their unique demands and new construction techniques, including large 3D printers, will also open the door for workers to start boutique car factories.
Builder of the McLaren super car, the Yamaha city car and lately the new Lotus, Durban-born Gordon Murray is already using his iStream process to enable artisans to make cars cheaply.
Explaining his revolutionary iStream process, Murray said car factories fundamentally still stamp panels from a sheet of steel, weld them together, paint them and “put the bits on and that’s your motor car”, despite a lot more automation and efficiencies being available,
Murray’s modular iStream is closer to the process by which most racing cars are built, which is to start with a type of roll cage, fit a drive train and then bolt on the seats and panels.
“So this is very disruptive technology. It’s tearing up the rule book and starting again,” said Murray.
In Washington, Local Motors CEO John Rogers has not even heard of the book. Rogers wants to equip hundreds of micro-factories to 3D-print self-driving minibuses.
In Pietermaritzburg, where taxi drivers and conductors recently set fire to a pilot smartcard system, Rogers’ micro-factories may have to be fire-proof. Such resistance from drivers will, however, not stop transport changes from happening. The biggest of these changes promises to be unused parking bays.
Driving a hobby for the rich
Chris Dixon, a partner at Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, told Insider Tech that parking bays use up to a quarter of a city’s real estate, and could be used for parks and pavement cafes.
As for driving a car, Dixon thinks this will become a hobby for the rich, adding that by the next decade, most cars on the road will be autonomous vehicles sharing knowledge.
“An autonomous car drops you off and picks up the next person, as opposed to the model now, which is just so wasteful, to have the car sitting in a parking lot 90% of the time.”
Tesla founder Elon Musk agrees that a fleet of self-driving cars sharing rides is the future, but he thinks this future is as close as in the next five years.
Musk is banking on people still wanting cars and Dixon is invested in drones that carry a person, but Horace Luke, co-founder and CEO at Gogoro scooters, is gambling that millennials will want independent transport in mega cities without the traffic or exhaust fumes, i.e electric scooters. Gogoro’s former cellphone engineers looked at making a new model of transport, starting with the way people use, consume and experience energy.
Luke said the transport industry has not kept up with the pace of urban life and is still stuck in the nineties.
Gogoro, instead, offers transport options that move fast, with seamless connections and sustainable choices.
The company consequently has a business model that sells battery banks where the Gogoro scooters can exchange flat batteries for charged ones in seconds.
Sound advice for gov’t
South Africa’s commuters have so far resisted the quick but fragile charms of scooters in cities, but fuel-station owners and other entrepreneurs with an eye on the future would do worse than register interest on the Gogoro site.
Speaking at the third Opportunities in the Fuel Retail Sector seminar, hosted in Pietermaritzburg by the Department of Energy last week, Sello Madima told some 70 people that the diesel and petrol sold at stations will be replaced by alternative energy sources such as solar power and biofuels.
Too big to change?
It is an open question whether the South African Department and Ministry of Trade and Industry, which has contributed over R28 billion to vehicle and component manufacturers over the past four years, is aware of these predictions.
It may very well feel that it doesn’t need to care, for the billions the DTI has pumped into the sector has showed very good returns, with the broader automotive industry’s contribution to South Africa’s GDP at 7,5% in 2014, while vehicle and component production accounted for 33,5% of SA manufacturing output.
Investments to establish factories were also made by FAW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and most recently Toyota, which paid R6,1 billion for a Hilux/Fortuner line at its plant in Prospecton.
The thinking in these circles is that they are too big to change.
But unless the big car brands manage to reshape their business models to sell transport as a service, instead of cars as ego extenders, Dixon predicts they will be replaced by the likes of China’s Protean, which makes hub motors that put the power of a V6 engine inside an 18-inch hub.
It boils down to software
The first trick car companies will have to master to survive is to make new models fast. Dixon quoted Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, who likes to say that right now the phone is an accessory to the car, but pretty soon the car is going to be an accessory to the phone.
“Phones are updated every six months to a year. Cars are updated every five years. Even if car companies got really good at software, it would be hard for them really to behave like software companies. Unless they really lean into becoming software companies and ride-hailing networks much more aggressively, it’s hard for me to see how the existing car companies are more than people who manufacture power trains and chassis. Everything else just seems like a software problem,” said Dixon.
For the daily commute, a motorised unicycle built using a hub motor and self-balancing electronics from a gutted Segway.
For the last stretch home, Air Wheel’s self-balancing electric unicycle.
Will South Africa’s taxi drivers adapt to robot taxis, like these self-linking city trains from Next?