2 Reasons Why 2023 is Optimistic for Autonomous Cars: Public Policy and Economics
I woke up this morning to numerous facebook posts sharing [this article in TechCrunch](http://techcrunch.com/2013/08/25/uberauto/), which was a mock press release from the future Uber and Google from 2023 detailing Uber’s purchase of 2.5k autonomous vehicles from Google.
It’s an entertaining thought exercise, but I thought was was more interesting and telling was what my friends posted along with the article, and what people commented on the article, things like :
“I’d be surprised if this doesn’t happen in 3 years, it only took Uber 2 to turn the transportation industry on its head.”
“5 years max for this to become a reality, Google already has the tech.”
I think this exposes the achilles heel of the silicon valley way of thinking: if the technology is possible, it will happen.
In Silicon Valley people too often neglect the much more important factors like Economics and Public Policy.
NFC Phones have been around for a long time, so shouldn’t we all be using them as our wallets by now? It’s technically feasible right?
No, it doesn’t make economic sense yet, Apple hasn’t installed NFC on their phones, not enough vendors have it. Because Apple doesn’t yet support it, vendors aren’t in a hurry to add it themselves: the tech is there but it doesn’t make economic sense yet.
The technology to create [Elon Musk’s Hyperloop](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop) is also possible … so why hasn’t it come to pass, and why won’t it probably ever come to pass at least for a decade? Because of the legislation required. Because there are people who will have a “not in my backyard” response to the proposal and vote it down. Because removing the need to drive through numerous towns in the middle of California will destroy local economies (and those people will vote against that legislation, or at least put up a fight). Because it seems so far fetched and futuristic that it will be hard to get people outside of San Francisco to take it seriously.
Elon Musk is a perfect example for another reason: Tesla. He didn’t invent electric cars, there were numerous attempts before him to create a sustainable business out of electric cars, but he made it make sense ECONOMICALLY to purchase one. He lowered the cost, and he increased the battery life. Much of the good press surrounding Tesla is how you can drive from SF to LA while only stopping for one battery charge at a charge station provided courtesy of Tesla. Musk understood this, and that’s why his marketing is geared around how far you can take the car, and the infrastructure Tesla provides (battery replacement, charging stations, the cost of gas) to make purchasing an electric car make economic sense.
Google is also not the first to try autonomous cars, there have been competitions held yearly by DARPA that as a robotics enthusiast I have followed since I was in middle school. So I’ve heard these same predictions about how close things are.
Google will have to get autonomous technology absolutely perfected, which I imagine will take at least another few years of beta testing. The consequences of a mistake are too high for them not to. It works now, but what about numerous fringe cases, one of those go wrong and they are fucked. What if a child runs into the street and Google’s tech isn’t dexterous enough to handle that outlier and the kid gets run over?
It will have to make their tech work in a consumer product, not just in a car filled with servers:
It will have to get legislation passed that somehow deals with the fact that there is no person who would be liable if a crash was caused … it will have to negotiate with insurance companies. It will have to change consumer habits, and it might have to go city by city, or state by state, to get it approved.
It will have to deal with the backlash caused by people who don’t like the idea of robots taking over jobs they can see everyday. It’s one thing if robots take over factory jobs in India, another if your cab driver no longer exists. There will be efforts by people to insist that “nothing can really duplicate a human driver.” There will probably be a period where human drivers are required to ride around with the autonomous vehicles just in case.
On one hand I think it’s great that the engineers and technology enthusiasts have this attitude of anything is possible. However, from a business perspective, startup enthusiasts too often neglect the real world implications of technology adoption in their predictions.
Economics and Public Policy are just as important as the tech.