Within the next five years, self-driving cars will change the automobile industry.
It's still too early in the game to say which companies will dominate the future of the industry, but one thing is a safe bet: The future of the transportation industry will look less like the hardware-centric industry of today and more like the software-based one we see in smartphones and computers.
What does that mean?
As I've written before, it means that, in five years, the leading businesses in the auto industry won't be car manufacturers. Instead, the companies that own the development platform for the autonomous car will be dominant. And their key resources won't be inventory or supply-chain partners, but the network of software developers that a company can tap into to build applications.
There's an App for That
So what does this future look like? Quite simply, it looks a lot like the smartphone industry has over the last decade, with the car transforming from a simple utility into a hub for entertainment, productivity, and connection, as well as an access point for service providers.
Much like the iPhone's legendary tagline predicted, there will be an app for that.
The first and most obvious category of apps will be those that relate to the car itself. This would include transportation apps like Uber, which will could enable self-driving cars to rent themselves out to passengers.
As well, AAA could roll out maintenance and monitoring apps to make car repairs less of headache. Self-driving cars could also become self-repairing down the line, as they would theoretically use internal analytics software to decide when and where to go in for a tune-up, ideally detecting problems before they occur.
Another category of apps will relate to things you can do around the car. Imagine the joy of an automated drive-thru at your local Starbucks or McDonalds. All you would need to do would be to type in your order and your car will take you to the nearest pickup window, with your order ready for the hand-off, an utter paradise.
Autonomous vehicles might also finally make one of Silicon Valley's pet projects, the so-called Social-Mobile-Local (or, more irritatingly, SoMoLo), a reality.
With the massive amounts of contextual location data that autonomous cars will make available, the "on-the-go decision-making engine" could finally come to fruition. In other words, what Siri or Google Now were originally meant to do.
Going skiing and want to go to the mountain with the best conditions? Let Siri direct you the best mountain. On the way home and looking for a healthy snack? Or the nearest clean bathroom? An app would guide you there.
Essentially, it would be Yelp on steroids, equipped with live data on your location and desires and it could actually get you there.
New Sensors, New Toys
These kinds of apps merely scratch the surface of what autonomous vehicles can bring to the table. Many of the most successful apps that came from the smartphone era were the result of using the phone's sensors in new and innovative ways.
Uber upended transportation by taking advantage of the always-on GPS. Fitness tracking apps exploded once everyone realized they had a step-counter in their pockets. Numerous games took advantage of the built-in gyroscopes for utilizing shaking and tilting movements.
The autonomous car will bring new sensors in spades. A 360-degree camera and LIDAR system will mean the car will always be mapping its immediate surroundings. While this technology is primarily used for navigation, it bodes well for AR and VR technology to be integrated with these capabilities. This technology will open up huge doors for gaming and entertainment, as developers can take full advantage of the unique environment the car provides.
Envision Pokémon Go if you were actually seeing the Pokémon around you in the real world as your car moved. It'd probably look a lot like a live-action version of Pokémon Snap.
Like never before, autonomous vehicles will enable developers to create large-scale immersive games and experiences, ones that simply aren't possible with a phone.
Additionally, autonomous cars will disrupt or completely replace many traditional travel industries.
For those living in New York or a similar big city, you've undoubtedly seen the many double-decker buses pass by filled to the brim with tourists. In a world of self-driving cars, these buses would likely be replaced by autonomous vehicles that offer custom-guided tours throughout the city, or any other locale, honestly. Building a huge database of location-specific tourism data would be a boon for any business working with self-driving vehicles.
Different service providers could even sell you unique your experiences through a content platform, allowing them to combine voice-overs with different types of AR and VR content that would eventually replace physical traditional tour guides (AI docents, anyone?). Think Jurassic Park without the T-Rex trying to eat you.
Undoubtedly, developers will come up with many other examples we haven't even conceived yet. Part of the magic of this platform opportunity is that it will empower millions of developers to tap into the car's new hardware and capitalize on the millions of hours of free time that consumers will find in their autonomous cars..
The car companies that will succeed and be the winners will be those that can best harness this developer creativity to stay ahead of the competition. Within half a decade, autonomous driving capability will simply be table stakes. The really exciting part is what will come after that.