Friday, April 04, 2014

[Cars] We Got Robots on the CB

There is a reason Google and others are pouring so much money into driverless cars and it's not because they are techno-geeks chasing the latest flavor of cool. It's because there is disruptive technology-level money in this. Most of the commentary on this topic is about how much freedom will be lost to commuters -- no more speeding when you are late, no more of the visceral pleasure of the act of driving -- and the various consumer oriented issues, but the fact is the first place driverless cars will be adopted is in the commercial sector and probably in long-haul trucking. If I was a trucking firm I would be spending serious scratch to get out in front of this. The cost savings are astounding. Imagine the equivalent of a driverless big rig. No paying the trucker (union wages and all the retirement and health benefits that correspond). The truck itself can be simpler, smaller, and cheaper -- no steering wheel, no comfort controls, no airbags, no compartment to sleep in -- mechanical necessities only. Plus, it never needs to stop to eat or pee -- given enough fuel, it can go 24/7 from one end of the country to another, always moving at the most efficient pace possible. The profit increases in the transportation industry will be enormous.

It's interesting to speculate how all this will play out over time. Right now there is a certain, perhaps justified, fear and doubt about driverless cars. What happens if these things go haywire and slam me full speed into a telephone pole? What if they blindly follow my GPS and drive me into a lake? Although these occurrences will be exceedingly rare, the media will portray them with breathless moral indignation, dramatists will build stories around them for their police procedurals, and lawyers will sue for eight figures. It'll be like Invasion of the Zombie Cars.

Things will change, but very slowly at first. Eventually there will be a reaction to the overhyped driverless car-pocalypse. Guidance systems will get increasingly better. People who have become more dependent on things like adaptive cruise control and blind spot warnings will be less fearful. (Hell, you can barely see out of modern cars anyway, and the only thing you do see is the tinted glass of the gargantuan SUVs all around you.) Robot cars will catch on in one or two of the more fashionable addresses. More and more people will know someone who has gone driverless, or perhaps even had a chance to try one themselves. Insurance companies will adapt to cover them. Infrastructure may be built into the very streets in some particularly troublesome areas to assist navigation. Eventually folks will begin to realize that, although there may be an extremely rare case of death by a misguided driverless car, for every one of those there are a thousand fewer deaths in road accidents (or something on that scale) due to human fallibility.

When that tipping point arises, you do not want to be employed as a commercial driver. Not long-haul trucking or pizza delivering or anything in between. Those jobs will be gone in a matter of months.

But what of old school human-guided vehicles? I suspect things will get tough for them. They will be much less safe compared to our robot driver overlords who never get distracted and never do anything even slightly risky. Driver's licenses may come at a higher cost and other sorts of taxes increased in an effort to offset the cost to society of you and your dangerous meat-piloted minivan. "Dumb" cars will probably be required to have special lights or infrared transmitters so that the machine-guided "smart" cars know to give them a wide berth; they may be banned by certain jurisdictions. More and more, driving and car culture will become a niche activity -- like riding horses or worse, civil war re-enactments. Auto racing may become the main purpose of old-school vehicles, although it will likely take a hit too, assuming its attraction is as an extreme version of an activity everyone can relate to. It will be permissible to operate a motorcycle only one week a year and only in a ten square mile radius around Sturgis.

You might ask, Who on Earth would want to live in such a world? The soccer mom who can use her car as a chauffeur. The 88-year-old with the reaction time of a tree sloth. Pretty much anyone who drives a Camry. Normal people, that's who. As for auto enthusiasts, well, you can barely find a manual transmission today, how are you going to fight this?

I exaggerate to make my point, but only slightly. I don't know how much of this transformation we'll see in my lifetime (I'm 53), but I know that all things must pass. Every idea, every concept, every dream has its day. The automobile as we know it has had, and for now still has, a great one. We should pause every once in a while to consider ourselves lucky to have lived during it. Our antecedents will one day read about people piloting vehicles themselves, of road signs and folding maps, of flat tires and tow trucks, of the horrible fiery deaths we all risked just to travel about. They will pity our ignorance and sneer at our backward ways. At least their cars won't let them do donuts on our lawns.