Friday, December 22, 2017

Driverless Cars – Wrap-Up, The New York Times Magazine Issue, and Ten Things to Understand

Since and including October 13th, when I said I could write a weekly blog on this topic alone, I have done almost that.  Except for two monthly issues on the AJSN and the jobs numbers, this source has provided nothing but eight topical installments.  Now, finally, it’s time to summarize, in preparation for moving on to other issues, this jobs-and-way-beyond area.

First, here is a glancing mention of nine remaining articles.  In “Waymo’s Human Problem” (Forbes, November 8th), Chinka Mui addressed yet another quandary, that of how to deal with shared-driverless-car users leaving behind a mess, which, as any current or former cabdriver (present company included) will tell you, is hardly rare.  We learned that “Optimus Ride will provide self-driving vehicles to Boston community residents” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, November 30), another example of the advantage of introducing autonomous cars and buses in agreeable subdivisions.  The tech-happy Russians are showing their skill in “Yandex takes its self-driving test cars out for a spin in the snow” (Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch, November 28th) – where could anyone better learn about that?  Unsurprisingly, “Intel wants to make your autonomous car rides more entertaining” (Andrew Tarantole, Engadget, November 29th), with “in-cabin, immersive experiences,” which will be a great growth area within this larger one.  We can expect “GM to launch self-driving vehicles in big US cities in 2019” (Fox Business, November 30th), if that company, which seems behind the curve, can get there.  We saw more specificity by one of the leaders in “Ford details plans for all-new autonomous vehicle” (Jeff Flock, Fox Business, December 6th), which will, quite appropriately in my view, be “shifting its focus from a new electric car driven by traditional buyers to hybrids driven by no one at all,” and will strive to “enable the vehicles to be in constant use.”  Central Beantown’s chaotic driving will improve, as “Lyft’s self-driving pilot with nuTonomy begins rolling out in Boston” (Matthew Lynley, TechCrunch, December 6th), with that firm seeming soberer and more measured than Uber.  The chance of a large computer internals maker, called “Chipzilla” without irony here, to appear in competing consortia now seems strong, as described in “Mobileye’s Latest Moves Will Strengthen Intel’s Clout in Autonomous Cars” (Motley Fool in Fox Business, December 9th), and, as to another behemoth, “Apple AI chief reveals more progress on self-driving car tech” (Jon Fingas, Engadget, December 10th).  Christina Anderson and Neal E. Boudette wrote that Volvo, the most famous-for-safety automaker, is “Trying to Bypass Anxiety on the Road to Driverless Cars” (The New York Times, December 12th), a fine thing for the industry, and one reason why political-liberal concern has significantly dropped in the past few months.

Second, I have not reviewed the year’s largest event in autonomous-vehicle press, the November 12th New York Times Magazine number, titled “Life After Driving.”  The entire section, except for the ads and puzzles, was given over to five articles on driverless cars, some with multiple parts, on what is happening, what will probably happen, what may or may not happen, and their myriad potential effects on our lives.  Given that lead times for books are simply too long, this remarkably current 82-page compendium will need to stand in, and it does that superbly.  The Sunday Times may cost $7 per issue here, but this thoughtful and prophetic compendium alone, which ended with a full-page drawing of “the museum of driving,” at which our descendants will be able to experience, among other things, drag racing, sitting in traffic jams, pumping gas, parallel parking, and even finding their cars in parking lots, was easily worth three times that.  If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth getting a copy.

Third, here are ten things we should all understand about autonomous vehicles and their associated revolution.

Number one, despite many efforts to tether the two together, driverless does not mean electric.  Hybrids would be well-suited, but after 50-plus years of government promotion and optimistic forecasts, only 2% of United States cars are electric-only, and that share, even if it goes up, will have its figurative doors blown in early next decade by the share of autonomous ones.

Number two, rural and urban considerations will be different.  Here in the rural Catskills, it will not be expedient for me to take a shared car one mile to the town center, 15 miles to the nearest McDonald’s, or 35 to the closest major retail center.  On the other hand, most city residents will join those in Manhattan by finding that owning a car is unjustified.

Number three, expected job losses are no reason to stop or deter technological progress, even if thoughts that other positions will replace them are unjustified.

Number four, in life quality and even expectancy, autonomous vehicles will prove to be a great boon.  Half a century from now, we will wonder how we lived without them.

Number five, consumer acceptance of driverless cars will grow, though not necessarily quickly.  Once people ride in them, see they are not scary, and understand their rapid improvement pace, few will stand against their proliferation.

Number six, the effects will be extremely broad-based.  Did Gottlieb Daimler know that by putting a lawnmower-sized engine on a four-wheeled bicycle, he would be kicking off changes ranging from romance and sex practices to city layouts? 

Number seven, despite some wonderfully creative thinking, autonomous vehicles will have many consequences which we cannot now predict.  We just can’t see it all from here.

Number eight, the cars’ interiors will have a gigantic range of possibilities.  They will provide some badly needed diversity in auto design, and it is quite likely that customers will be able to choose between ones made up as offices, shopping malls, reading spaces, card clubs, or even, of course, bedrooms.

Number nine, the 2020s will be the transitional decade during which drivered and driverless vehicles, both in great numbers, will share the roads.  The challenges of minimizing accidents and maximizing efficiency will be greatest then, and, eventually, most Americans will look forward to the almost-driverless-only 2030s and beyond.

Number ten, it IS happening.  It will not turn out like artificial hearts or air-and-road vehicles, which, although they exist in niches now, failed to gain widespread use.  It will be more like email or the Internet, with autonomous cars permanently entering one life after another.  That is the most important point here.  We all need to accept that cars will soon be driverless, so we can best deal with their expected, unexpected, and potential shortcomings.  We have no other choice.

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