I will be honest – I don’t like cars. I find them a bad investment, constant repairs, insurance payments, traffic jams, playing to people’s shallow vanity, as I get older my eyes are not as good and I do not like driving at night. In all honesty…they suck. Luckily there is good news on the horizon for people such as me, the world of autonomous vehicles is upon us. It is not something that has just spring up the in the last several years efforts have been underway for sometime. One of the primary drivers of this has been the US government through the DARPA Challenge. I first read about the DARPA driverless car competition back in 2004. This was a off road competition held on the California/Nevada border. It would take a few years but it was quickly mastered. The competition for these event usually come from the top universities in America such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford etc… The next autonomous event would be around streets – simulating a city. This event was excellently recounted in Lawrence Burns fantastic book, Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – and How It Will Reshape Our World . Needless to say it ended in success and it has been over ten years since this challenge, as like everything in tech it did not stop but spurred investment from the private sector. Google Moonshot was one of the first, and now there are dozens of companies investing in this field.
There are a lot of efforts currently being undertake and to build and deliver an autonomous vehicle right now by a variety of companies. We have the well known one, Tesla – but pretty much every automaker is working on a autonomous vehicle. Weather it be Ford, GM, Toyota etc..if you get anyone of those vehicles today they have a lot of features to help you navigate the road without having to touch the wheel – think new and improved cruise control. then there are ride sharing services like Uber (Uber just sold off their autonomous while work to Aurora) and Lyft who both have autonomous vehicle projects in the works. Then there are the “science projects” which includes the likes of Apple. There area lot of new companies coming out of the woodwork, in particular focused on long haul trucking. This makes a lot of sense as these routes are across America in long straight roads, companies like Kodiak Robotics and Nikola have focused on this area. Amazon acquired self driving taxi service Zook last year and is pushing ahead with plans to launch service. What it all adds up to is the fact that the race is on. A race in technology means one thing: A whole lot of money is being invested and about to be invested. Investors typically want to see a ROI on these investments.
Power will be big as companies look beyond oil. The current debate seems to have come down to two technologies: Lithium Batteries and Fuel Cells. The era of Big Oil is coming to an end, though it has a fascinating history, worth checking out in Daniel Yergin’s seminole book The Prize . The battle has begun with Tesla leading the way. The biggest challenge with these new forms of energy is not the technology, but the infrastructure to support them. Today if you are driving across country and need to refuel you just stop at the nearest gas station. This is made easier by services like Yelp or Google. Find the nearest station when you are in South Dakota and continue your journey. If you are driving a Tesla finding a charging station in Seattle is one thing, where they are rather plentiful, Finding it in Cheyenne, WY will be a little more difficult, not to mention all the land that lies between Seattle and Cheyenne.
I understand there are plenty of skeptics about autonomous vehicles, those that believe it is a pipe dream that will never happen. Those so attached to their vehicles and the perceived freedom it provides. God know how many houses I have seen with beautiful BMW’s in the driveway, but mowing the lawn is a challenge that is beneath the owner of the home. From a tech perspective this is not that hard to understand. the desire to have a vehicle navigate streets and all it’s unforeseen hazards Children running in the streets, dogs chasing balls, trees falling in storms, construction ongoing and ever changing etc..It may seem these cannot be overcome, but in the tech space these are merely technical challenges and in technology these challenges are always welcomed with open arms. Companies that avoid these technical opportunities will greet failure with open arms. In the technology space a technology challenge is just plain exciting. The opportunity to create a new more efficient modes of transportation, while using new cleaner, greener forms of energy is just too good t0 pass up.
It was Bill Ford, of Ford Motor Company who said over a decade ago that the automobile is no longer just a mode of transportation, it is a platform. Sounds more like a Tech CEO, but he was absolutely right. When I was young when you lifted the hood of a car you could see the motor and through many gaps you could see the road beneath it. Now you lift the hood of a vehicle there is just a lot of stuff. What you do not see, but it is there, and it is something more important than oil was to the combustion engine. It is data. Autonomous vehicles live in the world of algorithms and AI. They will pull information from GPS, analyze every turn at a street corner, understand merging onto the freeway at the right speed and the right distance, understanding the right route, and most importantly understanding the unforeseen variables that arise from nature and human interaction. At first there will be mistakes, but AI is a learning mechanism over time each variable will be understood, algorithms will be tweaked and autonomous vehicles will be improved. If you think about it whether you are driving a Tesla or hailing a ride share service, such as Uber or Lyft a lot of data is being collected.
The vehicle of the future may not be two seats in front and two seats in back (I just ran this by my wife, she is not into this idea). The Amazon Zoox Autonomous vehicle has seats facing one another. As we get more comfortable with self driving vehicles the vehicles themselves will get more comfortable. I could see a festive atmosphere to come in the car of the future, my self driving car will have a self driving bar (no fear of DUI’s anymore…lives saved). The vehicle of the future will not be limited in design, it will lead to an explosion in design. It could create a new field for luxury autonomous vehicles. Whether you will own them or will it be a service is still open to the market debate.
There will be issues. There will be tragedies. It is the price of progress. In fact there have already been some recorded deaths due to people trusting current vehicles autonomous capabilities too much. However the age old technology adage is in play, “we overestimate what we can accomplish in two years and underestimate what we can do in ten”. There will be countless deniers. Some will cling to their trucks for dear life, they will be taken advantage of by insurance companies who will charge exuberant prices for auto insurance so they can protect their precious civil liberty (capitalism loves a sucker, I look forward to taking your money). Make no mistake autonomous is happening. It will shape our lives. It will shape our future. It is coming faster than many expected. No more drivers ed. No more DUI’s. No more speeding tickets. No more being stuck in traffic and suffering from road rage. The benefits are endless. The lives saved countless.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hane Henrik Hoffmann