Since my last two articles focused on the comical side of American politics as it relates to tech, it seemed like a good time to turn my attention towards another politically-involved topic that I find fascinating: the impending changes on society resulting from “Driverless Cars”.
Self-driving cars are still an abstract concept for most people in society. They aren’t yet available for purchase, aren’t in mass production, and I would wager that most people haven’t even seen one in person yet. So, I think it’s safe to say that they’re not yet on the radar of most people.
Now, it’s important to note that when an innovation is in this early stage, its potential impact on society really doesn’t register with the public, since the idea is so far abstracted from what people see around them. In other words, to most people, the idea might as well be science fiction. Sure, some people may have heard of “those things”, but typically, people have no clue about what sort of progress is being made or when they’ll be available for purchase — if ever. The innovation is thought of as an “interesting idea”, but — for a variety of reasons — is usually not considered something that could have any meaningful impact on a person’s day-to-day life any time soon, if at all.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this line of thinking is intuitive, yet completely wrong.
To better understand why that’s the case, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone living in the late 1800’s.
As people living during that time period, we may have heard rumors about “horseless carriages” being developed by eccentric inventors or excessively rich people in far-off places, but on a day-to-day basis the only real form of transportation that most people see is horse and buggy.
Now, as a person in the 1800’s, it would be exceedingly difficult — close to impossible even — to understand how those fabled horseless carriages would eventually permeate and transform nearly every section of society. Again, a large contributor to this notion is the fact that everyone around you is using horse and buggy and NO ONE owns a car.
Further, even if someone could convince you to entertain the thought that cars might truly be superior (a notion that would be highly debated at the time), it would be all too easy to spout off a long list of reasons why cars are completely impractical:
- More expensive components and more difficult assembly lead to a more expensive product and higher maintenance costs
- Less reliable than a horse
- Slower than a horse
- Can’t be driven long distance
- Can’t be driven many places that horses can go
- Less safe (“What if the engine explodes? What if the brakes don’t work? My horse has no engine and it stops when I tell it.”)
- Legal hurdles (The laws weren’t written with horseless carriages in mind)
With a list of this many challenges — and probably many others that I’m missing — it becomes quite easy to see that during this time period, an entirely reasonable viewpoint would be that cars will probably never become a practical replacement for horse-drawn carriage.
And yet, thanks to the miracle of hindsight, we know that by the early 1900’s, cars had started to overtake horse and buggy. A few decades later, horse-drawn carriages were little more than relics of a bygone era. In other words, we know with 100% certainty that anyone who held this “entirely reasonable” viewpoint was completely wrong.
At this point, it makes sense to stop and ask the question “How can this happen?”. How is it possible that people with completely rational viewpoints, looking at all of the evidence, drew conclusions about the fate of cars that were so incredibly wrong?
The answer: technology changes so rapidly that people almost always end-up looking at the evidence from an entirely short-sighted perspective. In addition, the evidence that you see around you is not a reliable indicator about what sort of technologies will be coming out of the pipeline in the near future. Widespread use of a given technology at the present time does not always give us useful information about what sort of tech will dominate tomorrow.
Every one of the bullet points listed above was correct at one point in the 1800’s, but each and every one of those points stopped being true after a few more years of innovation and technological advancement.
The assembly line brought the costs down to a much more affordable price point, while the quality of materials went up. Interchangeable parts did wonders for the reliability of cars, while also improving the distance they could be driven safely since it was more likely that you could repair the vehicle if the car broke down. Of course, the government also needed to get on board and build paved roads, in addition to writing legislation that made sense for the new era of automobiles. All of this resulted in a huge boom in demand for automobiles around the turn of the century, while horse-drawn carriages declined in popularity dramatically.
To avoid making this same mistake when looking at new innovations, we need to look at how the emerging technology compares to the current technology AFTER taking into consideration how much room each one has to improve.
In the case of horse-drawn buggy vs. car, it’s pretty clear that there’s little that can be done to improve the speed, reliability, or range of the horse. That is, the limiting factor for the horse-and-buggy is the horse’s natural abilities. You can engineer the design of the carriage all you’d like, but you’ll only ever go as fast as the horse can run. In contrast, the automobile is entirely man-made and in the hands of the mechanical engineer, so the performance of the vehicle is only limited by our understanding of the technology — which tends to increase, historically. When looking at the comparison of the two transport systems from that perspective, it becomes much easier to conclude that the automobile is indeed superior after all.
So alright, how can we apply this lesson to what we see happening with driverless cars today? Simple. Let’s apply the same line of reasoning and see what happens.
There may be countless reasons why driverless cars don’t win-out when compared to manually-driven vehicles of today, but let’s ask ourselves, how many of those reasons will be eliminated with a little more technological innovation? From my estimate, it looks like driverless cars ultimately beat manually-driven cars in just about every way, once you work out the kinks in the technology, bring the price down, and get the right laws in place.
Why? Because the limiting factor of manually-driven cars is the natural ability of humans to judge speed/distance, gauge timing, and make split-second decisions. Machines are ALREADY better at performing all of those actions and will almost certainly only get even as technology continues to improve.
To me, this is a HUGE signal that driverless cars are on the path to overtake manually-driven vehicles as the primary form of transportation in the not-so-distant future. Just as the mechanical engine had more room to grow into becoming a device better-suited to pull heavier loads at faster speeds than the horse, computers are poised to become better-suited at maneuvering a vehicle than a person could ever dream.
In fact, I think that eventually, driverless cars will become so advanced, and so much safer than the cars of today, that manually-driven vehicles will ultimately be outlawed — but we’ll save that highly controversial discussion for another article!
So, if you, or anyone you know still views driverless cars as some pie-in-the-sky idea that will never truly impact your day-to-day life, I encourage you to just remember how those people traveling around the countryside in their horse-drawn buggy must have felt during the late 1800’s.
Just because you don’t see any self-driving cars around you yet, and there are numerous hurdles in the way of driverless cars truly prospering TODAY, that does not mean the situation can’t change dramatically in only a few years. In fact, if history is any sort of guide, we know that more often than not, that is precisely what happens.
For the latest news on self-driving cars, check out the Innovations in Transportation section of this site.
Stay-tuned for more articles on driverless cars, including my explanation for why manually driven cars will ultimately be outlawed (and why that’s a good thing!).