New research by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) foresees large numbers of partially self-driving or autonomous cars with highway- and traffic-jam-autopilot functionality appearing on our roads by 2017. Fully autonomous driving is expected by 2025.

In September 2014, BCG surveyed more than 1,500 U.S. drivers as part of the research to determine their willingness to purchase an autonomous car. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they were likely or very likely to buy a partially autonomous car within around five years, while 44 percent would likely buy a fully autonomous car within approximately 10 years. The most important reasons for buying an autonomous car included lower insurance and fuel costs, increased safety, and the ability to multitask or be entertained while being transported.

Autonomous features are expected to initially cost between $2,000 and $10,000 per vehicle but, BCG predicts, the dollar amount will decline appreciably over the first 10 years. With favorable pricing strategies, the research finds, OEMs could achieve a 25 percent market penetration of autonomous vehicles by 2035.

OEMs are wasting no time in pursuing that market penetration. Bloomberg Businessweek (January 12) reports that automobile-related exhibit space — much of it dedicated to autonomous driving — at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, has more than doubled over the last five years, prompting one observer to comment that CES “has become an auto show.” Consumers are proving to be receptive.

Not so fast, is the message Emily Badger conveys in a Wonkblog post at washingtonpost.com (January 15, 2015). She points out that much debate remains about how autonomous cars will be adopted and what it will mean. In this regard, she lists “five confounding questions:”
• Will consumers want to buy driverless cars?
• How will humans behave behind the self-driving wheel?
• Who will be liable when a driverless car crashes?
• How will driverless cars change our travel and consumption patterns?
• Is our infrastructure ready?

While Badger offers thought-provoking discussion on each of these issues, it is the penultimate question that holds the most import for car washers and detailers. Here, she offers two competing arguments. The first holds that autonomous cars will cause a decline in car ownership, becoming shared assets used only as needed; further, that total miles traveled will decrease because of new efficiencies. Neither of these outcomes augurs well for the car care industry.

Second, she argues equally as convincing for the opposite result: car ownership will rise because consumers will want to own more of them as their usefulness increases, and total miles traveled will move up since easier travel will encourage new trips not currently being undertaken. These are prospects all car washers can root for.

BCG points out that autonomous cars may accelerate the trend toward car sharing and ride sharing, which could negatively impact car sales in major cities. Badger sees this as possibly leading to city population growth because of convenient ownership-free transportation. On the other hand, she allows that autonomous cars could just as easily give rise to further suburban sprawl due to the commute becoming either a productive or entertaining ride.

The conclusion reached by BCG is not surprising: Mass adoption of self-driving technology will carry with it tremendous economic and societal benefits, while disrupting business as usual for many. We can count car washing among the many.