The Coming Rise of the Autonomous Road Trip
With all the recent news around robotaxis, electric scooters, and personal autonomous vehicles that will change the urban landscape, it’s easy to forget that for millions of Americans, vehicle travel means far more than commuting. In fact, in the US over a billion vehicle miles are traveled every year by Americans going on road trips for vacations according to the Department of Transportation. And with constantly increasing security measures at airports and tight finances for younger vacation-goers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that 85% of American vacations are domestic, with short-duration road trips rising in popularity every year. Given that long miles on sparsely populated highways are an ideal use case for autonomous vehicles, it’s only a matter of time before autonomous capabilities come to the forefront of road trip culture.
Enjoying the Journey
Road trips are popular for many reasons – flexible schedules, pet and family friendliness, low cost, etc. However, with the average vacation road trip totaling more than 600 miles round trip, drivers are often faced with long hours behind the wheel focused on driving and navigating rather than taking in the scenery, interacting with passengers, and generally enjoying the trip itself rather than waiting to arrive at a destination. Autonomous vehicles stand ready to change that situation in multiple ways:
- By off-loading driving & navigating to the vehicle itself, families taking road trips will only need to worry about last-mile planning to find campsites, national park views, RV hookups, etc. Rather than stressing over who is going to take the next driving shift, passengers will instead choose where they want to stop to rest and eat.
- As with many autonomous vehicle discussions, one of the big benefits of not needing to worry about driving is the ability for everyone in the vehicle to enjoy more engaging entertainment options. Autonomous road trip vehicles will go beyond offering rear-seat screens with limited media integrations to offering in-vehicle entertainment for all passengers, including high-speed internet, large screens, and reclining seats ready to recreate a true living room experience on-the-go.
- A new opportunity afforded by autonomous vehicles is curated, guided tours for vacation-goers. Rather than taking the most direct route to reach a destination and reading factoids off a website, the vehicle itself could follow a more picturesque route and provide professional commentary on points of interest along the way.
The Ultimate Road Trip Vehicle
In the last few years, dedicated road trip vehicles available to rent have cropped up as a popular option for people who want to tackle America’s highways and great outdoors in comfort. From full-size RVs run by companies like Cruise America to converted minivans provided by companies like Juicy, new options for road trippers seem to pop up every few months. As autonomous driving technology becomes available in vehicles meant for public roads, expect to start seeing an expansion in companies offering autonomous road trip vehicles for rent as well as purchase. These vehicles will likely come with a few options that make them very appealing to road trippers:
- Nighttime driving packages will augment “normal” driving sensors with additional low-light imaging capabilities. The reason is clear: why spend all day on the road when you can go to sleep in one place and wake up a quick walk from where you really want to be? Comfortable sleeping compartments even in smaller vehicles will take precedence as a result.
- The concept of the mobile office will be completely redefined when everyone in a vehicle can work at a desk while the vehicle does the driving. “Work from the road” autonomous RVs will likely be especially popular with younger remote workers who today are often found at coffee shops and WeWork locations. These types of vehicles will likely prioritize connectivity and display features.
- Economies of scale will also likely make specialized autonomous RVs a practical option in the market. From family-oriented to rock climber to surfer, lifestyle-oriented vehicles will fill niches that today are only served by travel organizers. After all, the ultimate road trip vehicle is one that is customized to the needs of the person on the road trip.
The Thin Line to Mobile Home
In recent years, the concept of “conversion vans” and buses has gained a significant following and level of acceptance that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Younger workers, fed up with high rents, congested cities, and mundane office jobs are opting out of traditional apartment rentals or home ownership. In many cases they are turning to living in their vehicles, converting them from cargo vans and school buses into surprisingly luxurious miniature homes. An entire cottage industry has popped up around this concept, offering components, instructions, and installation labor to perform vehicle-to-home conversions. Autonomous vehicles offer even more reasons for people to ditch traditional housing:
- “Commute” vans based on autonomous platforms could let people live far outside city limits in cheaper areas and arrive at the office parking lot just in time for work. Or, workers could hop between different remote offices and collaborative working spaces at will while living in their vehicles and working flexible schedules. This would be particularly appealing to people who currently struggle with sky high rents in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles where the traditional options are to spend 50% or more of income on rent or live over an hour away from work.
- For many people, the idea of moving between multiple housing locations either for vacation or when the season changes is very appealing. Autonomous vehicles converted to living spaces will make these kinds of seasonal relocations a no brainer since once you get to your destination, you’re already home. The added cost savings of not having to own multiple homes or pay for lodging are an added bonus.
- A big push in the automotive industry in the last year has been a move toward vehicle platforms rather than fully-built cars and trucks. Right now that means buying an electric battery pack plus drivetrain and then adding a true chassis on top, but in the near future, vehicle platforms will come with integrated autonomous sensors and software baked in. This will make building a vehicle home even easier than it is today, with niche manufacturers no doubt ready to build custom living spaces on top of long range autonomous electric platforms.
While autonomous vehicles will be limited to specific locations and operating conditions for quite a few years, it’s only a matter of time until they are ready for mass adoption. When that happens, be ready for a new wave of adventurers taking to the open roads and making the most of a lifestyle untethered to one location.