Nick Lamb recently purchased three new vehicles for his company, Butler Heating and Air Conditioning in Dayton, Ohio. They were all used Ford Transits with traditional gas engines. But in the course of his shopping, he started to wonder how much longer he’ll buy vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Lamb has started looking at the 2022 E-Transit. Ford’s entry in the EV market brings a range of 120-140 miles for each charge. The problem for Lamb is that Butler technicians drive much more than that on any given day. This means he’ll have a lot to think about before investing in an all-electric fleet.

“There will be a lot of new questions that arise that we haven’t really considered,” Lamb said.

One option is to have technicians trade out trucks at mid-day for charging. That creates issues because technicians tend to grow very attached to their vehicles.

“Guys like their trucks stocked a certain way,” Lamb said. “They are their trucks while they’re here.”

Electric vehicles are only one major change on the horizon for HVAC contractor’s work fleets. The even bigger news is so-called autonomous vehicles. Others refer to these as driverless cars. The writer Malcolm Gladwell prefers the term “electronically directed vehicles.” Whatever you call them, some version seems guaranteed in the future. How will this impact HVAC contractors?

One way to view this change is by realizing our transportation became dumber about 100 years ago. For centuries, people operated vehicles that could think for themselves, with the computer being an animal’s brain. My uncle once told of a milkman from his youth who would take two stops’ worth of milk from his cart. His horse would then proceed to the third house, waiting for the milkman to repeat the process. Moving to a truck actually reduced productivity in some ways.

So how could you benefit from your techs not having to drive their trucks? Well, they could get a lot more actual work done. They could fill out paperwork after a job or prepare themselves for the next stop rather than having to drive. Heck, they could even safely eat lunch or change uniforms if they get too dirty at one site.

Automated vehicles could even change 24-hour service. A smart house could contact a firm’s system and dispatch a truck without need for a human. The on-call tech would receive notification on his phone and meet the truck at the house. Or maybe the truck picks him up at his house.

But there will be some downside for techs. After working hard to tackle a job, the time driving the truck offers a few minutes for some techs to relax.

We don’t know when these vehicles will arrive. Optimists make it sound like next week. Others, like Mary Cummings of Duke University, expect a longer wait — more than a decade. It’s been said that technology takes longer to arrive than expected, but once it does, adoption occurs more quickly than expected as well.

This industry offers proof of that. Willis Carrier published a revolutionary paper on psychrometrics in 1911, covering topics such as relative humidity, absolute humidity, and dew-point temperature — in other words, the information needed to create the modern air-conditioning industry. But two world wars and the Great Depression slowed the spread of this technology to people’s homes.

After 1950, though, it grew as quickly as TV, another delayed technology. You can see the impact in the population rankings of U.S. cities. With the exception of Los Angeles, the biggest U.S. cities had been located in cooler parts of the country for all of the nation’s history. But in 1960, Houston joined the list. Dallas followed a decade later. Today, cities like Phoenix and San Antonio have displaced Buffalo and Detroit.

That’s the thing about technology — it comes with unforeseen impacts and winds up operating differently than expected. As Yogi Berra once said, the future is hard to predict because it hasn’t happened yet.