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The spillover benefits of AV technology could be wide-ranging

scientist sitting next to a lidar-equipped drone outdoors in Antarctica
A researcher taking lidar measurements for 3D maps of Antarctica's Horseshoe Island. Photo: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The effort to commercialize fully autonomous vehicles has spawned an array of supporting hardware and software technologies whose impact could extend well beyond AVs.

The big picture: Fierce competition during the mobile computing boom led to better, cheaper components — cameras, batteries, wireless chips — that in turn transformed technologies from satellites to drones. A similar process could play out with AVs, as the billions of investment dollars pouring into the sector enable advances that spill over into retail, health care and other parts of the economy.

Details: These second-order benefits could come from several AV–related technologies.

  • Sensors: The low-cost, high-performance laser sensors being developed for AVs will find use cases in numerous other industries. Lidar maker Quanergy is already looking beyond AVs, expanding its target markets to include industrial automation and physical security.
  • Simulation: AV programs are investing heavily to build simulation software that trains neural networks in virtual environments using "synthetic data." This technology could democratize machine learning by reducing the need for companies to collect massive proprietary real-world datasets — with applications from warehouse robots to senior-care assistants to military drones.
  • Mapping: Highly detailed 3D maps designed to enable AV navigation could find uses in advertising, retail and urban planning. For instance, a company could serve a tailored, augmented-reality experience to a customer in a precise location — perhaps to entice them into a store.
  • Core machine learning capabilities: AV research is driving advances in general machine learning capabilities like object recognition, prediction and path planning that have applications across industries. From leveraging computer vision to monitor crops in agriculture to using image analysis to automate diagnosis in health care, AI companies will benefit from the basic research coming out of the AV world.

What to watch: At present, AV companies are still struggling to make self-driving cars a reality. Expect the benefits of these nascent technologies to play out over the long term.

Rob Toews is an investor at Highland Capital. Previously, he worked on strategy at Zoox.