It’s hard to turn on the news these days without hearing a story about autonomous drive vehicles. Interestingly, the stories are not just about people getting used to the idea of driverless cars, either. Autonomous vehicles are driving a profound change in transportation as we have come to know it.
John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, was on CNBC recently, talking about a paradigm shift in car ownership over the next decade as a consequence of autonomous drive. Instead of owning cars, Zimmer sees consumers migrating toward a “transportation-as-a-service” model, where people subscribe to monthly transportation plans, much like we subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime to stream movies today.
Lyft believes there will be multiple “transportation-as-a-service” fleets – just as there are multiple telcos today. Once a provider can deliver a three-minute ETA through a smartphone app, it will be equivalent to AT&T or Verizon providing three bars of service!
Mark Fields, CEO of Ford, stated at a recent investor conference that the economics of an autonomous drive vehicle will make the cost per mile much less than a driver owned car today. This is an overt endorsement to the broader use of the autonomous services because it will benefit mankind when it happens.
Apple has been in the news recently, with rumors of restructuring of its own “iCar” program. The Financial Times reported that Apple is making a bid for British car maker McLaren. We’ve already noted Apple’s $1 billion investment in Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing, even though the Chinese government has banned on-road autonomous drive testing and is currently pushing to drive employment of drivers.
Does Apple want to establish its own fleet? Sell cars? Or does it just want to sell its software to other car makers? All that remains to be seen. Clearly there are multiple players converging on what appears to be a huge economic opportunity. Today, the traditional model of owning a car generates $2 trillion annually in the U.S. If trends shift away from ownership towards ride sharing and “transportation-as-a-service,” that model changes completely and could mean big returns for those investing in autonomous drive vehicle fleets, transportation-related software, and the like.
So, what are the implications for Western Digital and the semiconductor industry? Well, simply put, all that software and all the data that’s been generated by multiple sensors placed throughout an autonomous vehicle has to be captured, stored, analyzed and communicated and eventually kept somewhere – and the best place is none other than NAND Flash storage. NAND Flash has proven to operate reliably in the extreme environments associated with driving (with the wide variations in temperature, humidity, and vibration). It also provides significant volumes of storage in a minimal physical footprint, which is critical when physical space is at a premium.
Current autonomous drive pilot programs around the world include tens of terabytes of storage in each vehicle. As pilot programs evolve into production, the amount of storage packed into a vehicle may decrease, but perhaps not. The history of application development and data consumption is one that shows a steady increase in the demand for storage, so autonomous vehicles in the future may be configured with even more storage.
So when will this great shift to autonomous vehicles take place? The early trials are only now getting underway. There will be bumps in the road, but there are already a lot of smart people looking at the challenges and the opportunities, and we’re betting that solutions will be found.
Thankfully, a storage solution is not one that is going to pose problems for them.