Most of what we see about the upcoming self-driving car phenomenon comes from the industry. Press releases and contributed articles may disagree on timing and exact phase-in mechanisms, but they’re pretty unanimous in one respect: “This is happening.”
There are certain segments, of course, for whom self-driving cars will be money in the bank. Anyone who has to pay pesky humans out of their revenue stream can eliminate this cost and simply keep all the money. (Or improve the economics… more on that in a sec…) Hence truck-driving and Lyft-driving are viewed as careers that will disappear.
But what about cars for the rest of us? Will we like self-driving cars? Will we buy them? Will we need to buy a car at all? These questions are as yet unanswered, and speculation is all we can engage in by looking at unofficial comments about this pending radical shift.
And where might we find such commentary? Social media, of course, which has democratized messaging with something of an end-around, bypassing the officially controlled channels. I debated how to approach this angle – name and quote? The thing is, I do have something of a preference for observing without affecting, however, and my goal really isn’t to direct everyone’s eyes to any particular platform or thread. Rather, it’s to filter out some of the messages. So I decided to stay vague about where I’m seeing these things – even though that’s the opposite of citing sources.
Different platforms have different strengths. Twitter, for example, with its small message size, evanescence, and ease of automation, tends to be flooded with corporate messages. It’s not well suited to thoughtful conversation. (I know what you’re thinking… not going there.) Facebook and LinkedIn have nominally longer attention spans; they’re more conducive to an enlightening discussion.
My attention was drawn by notification emails I would get regarding new threads. And there was a decided alarmist tint to them – along the lines of, “How can we trust our lives to algorithms? What if they’re wrong?” (Not an actual quote, but paraphrasis.) So I dug in to see what horror scenarios were being created in the discussion.
Turns out that these alarms didn’t reflect the overall tone of that community (I’m not sure how the platform selects threads for emailing – by managers/owners or by algorithm). Yeah, there were a few such discussions, but not nearly what it seemed via email. So the first lesson was, “No, they’re not all freaking out.”
There were interesting things to dig out, however. And I should mention that these conversations involve people interested in the topic as well as practitioners from inside the industry, so you get some industry-informed content without the PR-managed messaging. Then again, because many of these voices don’t represent official positions, it’s entirely possible – even likely – that the ideas and concerns they present could go nowhere. One must also be cautious about extrapolating to the public at large, since these groups are self-selecting.
Still, those caveats notwithstanding, there are some nuggets. I took away four main themes from the discussions. Some are more obvious than others.
1. Should intermediate levels of automation be allowed?
Depending on whom you talk to, we may ease from unautomated to assisted to partially automated to fully automated. We looked at this before; I voiced the concern that, if there weren’t standards for handling and communicating automation hand-off, then people borrowing or renting unfamiliar cars might have a hard time figuring out what level of automation they were dealing with and when that automation would turn on or off.
But some are taking this discussion to a different level: there is a position that these intermediate automation levels should be used only internally for development– they shouldn’t be marketed until full automation is achieved.
The received wisdom is that the gradual release strategy will win out in order to get a jump on the return-on-investment aspect of this grand project. Car companies will be eager to commercialize, unless…
2. Are the car companies really interested in self-driving cars?
There are a couple of notions wrapped up in this question. The first is that of the automotive OEMs as constituting something of a cartel (no pun intended) – a closed club that’s being challenged by runny-nosed pipsqueak Silicon Valley upstarts (again, paraphrasis, with language strengthened to stir outrage and debate). Will they sit idly by while companies like Waymo threaten the cozy status quo? Or will they play along, acquiring technology and then slow-rolling its release?
Interestingly, Tesla straddles these two camps. It’s clearly in full-fledged production (even if targeting, historically, the moneyed class) – and yet it clearly represents a new, technology-driven approach to building cars.
So, Tesla aside, why wouldn’t the traditional OEMs be excited about all the new things technology will allow them to do? Well, for one, cost. Technology ain’t cheap – at least, to start with. So it goes in gradually, where clear value and up-selling is possible. (But, if they do too good a job, it may be mandated in future models, which they don’t like.) But there’s nothing new about this concern; it could apply just as easily to smart windshield wipers as it would to full automation.
No, there’s a more subtle possible concern. And, at this point, it bears repeating that this is not the OEMs saying they have a concern; it’s the voices of individuals who may have insights or may have conspiracy theories. Regardless, the ideas are interesting.
The issue here becomes clearer if we think about where our personal cars spend most of their time: parked. They are transportation, but, most of the time, for most of us, they’re not doing any transporting. Automated cars open up the possibility that we could forego buying personal cars and simply order up rides as we need them.
We can do this today, of course, by calling a cab or a ride-hailing service. In heavily urbanized areas like New York City, many people don’t own cars, and they use taxis all the time. In many other cities, however, taxis are few and expensive and slow to arrive – which explains the popularity of ride-hailing. But even as it gets easier to get a ride, personal cars typically stay home only when people go out to drink (so they don’t have to drive home) or when parking would be a nightmare. For everyday stuff, we use our own cars.
So, even if we use public transit and cars driven by others, most of us still own a car – parked in the driveway while we use these other modes. What if self-driving cars lowered the cost of a summoned vehicle (due to the lack of a compensated driver) to the point where they became ubiquitous and started to make it silly to own a car oneself?
At present, the math usually doesn’t support going carless (depending on your driving habits, of course). As one anecdote, when I was living in Santa Cruz, I started keeping track of my driving habits to see what might happen if I tried to go carless. My motivation was to see whether I could save money by eliminating the car, the fuel, the insurance, and the maintenance.
For those of you not familiar with that territory, Santa Cruz is almost attached to Silicon Valley – and yet it’s separated by a windy highway through the Santa Cruz Mountains. So it’s a tenuous part of the Bay Area, and yet many people don’t consider it part of the Bay Area. Point being, it’s almost part of a metro area, but not quite. A drive into San Jose – with no traffic (and there’s often traffic) – is an easy half hour or more.
I discovered that there were lots of local things I could do without a car. But, a few times a year, I’d want to go on a roadtrip somewhere. Say, 1500 miles of driving. Heck, I once drove to ESC Boston and back. In theory, I could rent a car for those rare occasions. But I quickly learned that the cost of renting a car a few times a year would completely wipe out any savings from not owning a car.
So the economic model would have to change pretty dramatically for going carless to pencil out outside a very few major cities. If that did happen, a tipping point might be crossed, leading to less individual car ownership.
For the auto industry, that would mean replacing the large number of cars sold per year, which mostly sit idle, with a smaller number of self-driving cars – in theory, just enough to keep them from sitting idle. That would be a significant drop is overall sales – something the OEMs wouldn’t want to rush to realize.
Of course, as with so many similar discussions, it bears noting that this analysis doesn’t apply well to rural areas. If it takes an hour to hail a ride, you’re going to want your own car. And if you need a vehicle to bring home a load of 2x4s, you’re probably not going to find that app on your phone; you’re going to own a pickup. My own guess is that car ownership would persist indefinitely outside metropolitan areas – but if that’s the entirety of the served market that OEMs can look forward to in the eventual future, it represents huge shrinkage.
So this motivates the theory that OEMs would like to a) maintain control over the future of the industry and b) slow-roll automation.
3. Ethical questions persist
As algorithms evolve, there’s a general feeling that they will always be at risk of facing a decision between two bad outcomes. The typical manifestation of this question is the so-called “trolley problem,” which evolves from similar decisions that a trolley operator might have to make if there are people ahead on the track, but also someone on the side track. So doing nothing or doing the only other possible thing – going onto the side track to avoid the people on the main track – means hurting one or more people.
With self-driving cars, the conundrum is more often expressed as tension between protecting the occupants of the car and protecting people outside the car. In this case, the choice might be to do nothing and mow down a crowd of people or to turn onto the only trajectory that includes no pedestrians– which takes you into a wall, which may injure the passengers.
This also gets to the notion of liability and how fault would be assessed (and monetized). And, as far as I can tell, there are no clean answers. It’s a perennial problem. It bears noting, however, that the trolley version has applied for as long as there have been trolleys, and it certainly hasn’t kept them from riding the rails.
4. Will we really give up our cars?
This final topic has come up in numerous places. Most of the self-driving car discussion focuses on the essential role of cars: transportation. But cars are more than just practical conveyance – especially in the US. Cars are synonymous with freedom. The ability to come and go exactly when desired, not when someone else’s schedule permits. The ability to go wherever you want – including dusty, bone-rattling, oil-pan-denting paths that are barely roads – and not be limited by some pre-determined route.
There are those who believe that we will never cede control of our ability to be where we want when we want to some other company. This is driven partly by culture, but also by what we’re used to. And it has potentially nothing to do with the economic calculations we looked at above. I could possibly go carless if the appropriate economics and convenience evolved out of a thriving, competitive market (real competition, that is, not the modern version of five brands all owned by one or two companies), but it would be a hard sell – and I’m not a cold-dead-hands type.
Will others relinquish their car keys under such conditions? If so, my guess is that it will take a couple of generations of changed expectations before we purge our identities of autophilia. And that might not be enough.
All four of these themes – and the many others intertwined or yet to be introduced – give no clear answers at the moment. But they do seem to be worthy of consideration as we rush headlong into the automotive future.