A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 14, 2017

Why the First Truly Driverless Car Will Be the Next iPhone

The automobile transformed contemporary life and its autonomous successor will do so again. The list of interconnected industries - trucking, insurance, real estate, new and used car sales, medicine, etc - is too long to contemplate.

The question is what we, as a civilization, are prepared to do to help optimize the transition. JL

Eric Limer reports in Popular Mechanics:

Technology is advancing exponentially, and each further advancement is orders of magnitude more impactful than the last. In 2015, Americans wasted 8 billion hours stuck in traffic. The advent of a truly self-driving car could move us well beyond (the car ownership model), to fleets of taxis that drop you off and head back out. The full scope of interconnected variables is almost too much to fathom.
Ten years ago today, Steve Jobs stood on stage in front of the crowd gathered for the Macworld 2007 convention at Moscone Center and made an unmistakably world-changing announcement. The iPhone (the potential of which Jobs probably undersold as merely "an iPod, a mobile phone, and internet communicator") proved to be so much more than the sum of its parts.
But if the iPhone was the most important technological advancement of the 21st century so far (not a hard case to make), then what's the next iPhone? Actually, it's already here, though the reverberations of its development have only just started to branch outwards.
No, it's not impressive-but-still-niche VR, or the revolutionary but extremely nascent field of machine learning, though these technologies will surely have their impact. I'm talking about the self-driving car.First, for perspective, a quick overview of what made the smartphone, brought to the masses by the iPhone, such a world-changing creation.
The iPhone:
  • Created the mobile software marketplace, an industry that made over $50 billion dollars last year despite not having existed a decade ago, and gave rise to app-based companies like Uber, which is valued at over $60 billion dollars in its own right.
  • Brought the internet to the developing world in a way it had never seen before. Cheap Android devices in particular are the typical choice, but they have Apple to thank for inspiration and innovation-driving competition.
  • Radically democratized GPS navigation. Remember printing (or buying) physical maps? Dedicated GPS devices? Having to know where you were going before you left?
  • Introduced the age of always-connectedness. Cell phones and pagers were keeping professionals and business people in the loop long before the iPhone, but the smartphone revolution permanently connected everyday people to the internet at all times, enabling the ludicrous boom of social media, for better or worse.
And that's only to name a few of the big ones. But the coming wave of self-driving cars promises to upend the world in at least as many dramatic ways.
In 2015, Americans wasted 8 billion hours stuck in traffic, that's over 900,000 years. Residents of Los Angeles, where traffic is the worst, spend 81 hours or two full work weeks in traffic every year. Self-driving cars attack this truly epic amount of wasted time from two angles at once. When you aren't driving, that time suddenly becomes usable. But furthermore, computers can drive far better than stupid humans ever could, and self-driving cars will not only enable more efficient traffic flow, but they will manage it at super human speeds. Commuting will quite literally never be the same.Of course this is a double-edged sword. Most of us sit in traffic on the way to work, but for millions sitting in traffic is work. There are about 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, and about a quarter million cabbies as of 2014. Self-driving cars will demolish this industry. After all, self-driving trucks are already caravanning along highways, though they can't handle tricky bits like urban driving or backing up to docks. Self-driving taxis, meanwhile, could follow optimized routes no human could hope match, making flesh-and-blood drivers obsolete while reducing the number of vehicles needed to service an area effectively.
Which brings us to the next industry that's bound to get sliced and diced, or at least spun around with a blindfold and sent stumbling off in a new direction: car manufacturers. Virtually every car company is diving headfirst into self-driving technology, with auto-parking features and advanced cruise control, to near fully-autonomous operation on the part of companies like Tesla. But these companies still cling to the old business model of selling cars for people to own. The advent of a truly self-driving car could move us well beyond that, to fleets of taxis that drop you off and head back out onto the road.
Sure, car ownership will retain its value for rural communities, parents who don't want to throw their kid into some random carseat, and enthusiasts who like owning vehicles. But for most of us, it will irrevocably change the way cars are made and sold as fleets encroach on individual vehicles when it comes to the unit of sale.
American cities are plagued by parking lots
So what will happen to all those people who lose their jobs in the shuffle? Maybe we can put them to work drastically changing the shape of our urban and suburban spaces. American cities are plagued by parking lots, slabs of unsightly pavement that will become increasingly useless as parking becomes less and less important. Do we turn our parking garages into multistory parks? Streetside parking into treelined boulevards?
These are but a handful of the most easily predictable changes self-driving cars will bring. Other more surprising ones still on the way. Car crash fatalities are a major source of donor-organs that could soon dry up because tens of thousands of Americans usuallydie on the road every year. Imagine if that just stopped, or at the very least severely curtailed. What would it do to the car insurance industry. The full scope of interconnected variables is almost too much to fathom.
The exact shape of this future is still fuzzy, but it's coming into focus. The age of the iPhone, which has unfolded over the past decade, gives us a useful frame of reference for just how fast our next disruptive future is coming. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, packed the notion up quite nicely with his Law of Accelerating Returns, which says that technology is advancing exponentially, and each further advancement is orders of magnitude more impactful than the last. If that's true—and it feels more than ever that it is—the iPhone was just a taste of what that curve holds for the millennium


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