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Faster Horses to Autonomous Vehicles: The True Revolution

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Henry Ford, maybe.

In this famous quote that Henry Ford may or may not have uttered, he believed he was transcending customer expectations by introducing the automobile, certainly a giant leap forward from horse-drawn carriages. Yet, in hindsight, and especially when juxtaposed with the dawn of autonomous vehicles (AVs), the car can today ironically be seen as merely a “faster horse.” While it did revolutionise speed and mechanised transport, it still required a human driver, much like a horse needed a rider. It also left indelible scars on the world around us, both visible (in the form of roads, highways, carparks, and other infrastructure) and invisible (in the form of pollution that threatens our very existence).

Now, as we transition into the age of AVs, we’re witnessing what may prove to be the true transportation revolution — vehicles that don’t just move faster, but think for themselves.

A Watershed Moment in San Francisco

Today’s decision by California regulators to allow Cruise and Waymo to expand their commercial robotaxi services in San Francisco marks a pivotal moment in the evolution of autonomous transportation. This decision, despite facing stiff opposition from “NIMBY” residents and city agencies — apparently having forgotten the benefits of the critical role Silicon Valley has traditionally played in the diffusion of innovations from the web itself to robots now roaming our streets — underscores the growing confidence in the safety and reliability of AVs. Both companies had previously offered limited paid services in the city, but this permit extension allows them to significantly expand their operations, with no cap on the number of robotaxis on the roads.

Many see this as a positive step forward, believing that the rise of AVs could lead to safer and greener streets, and even more unionised jobs in the city (which seems a stretch to this author).

The Future of Personal Transportation

Robotic cars could be summoned by application (similar to ride-sharing services like Uber, but without a driver), by voice (like Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri), or even automatically using artificial intelligence. These agents, learning from our habits and preferences, can accurately predict our needs. Imagine finishing a meeting and finding an AV already waiting for you, summoned by your virtual assistant who anticipated your schedule in advance.

This approach could be significantly more efficient too. The term “duty cycle,” which I use to describe the ratio of vehicles’ active usage to total time including idle periods, highlights the inefficiency of our current system. By my rather unscientific estimation, most private vehicles today are active for just 2-4% of the day, equating to 0.5 to 1 hour in a 24-hour period depending on usage patterns and commutes. They spend the other 23+ hours a day taking up valuable space necessarily in close proximity to where we work, live, and play, when they could be earning money for their owner by shuffling people and goods around. Indeed, AVs providing robotaxi services could operate nearly 24×7, driving the duty cycle up to almost 100%!

Reimagining Urban Landscapes

This efficiency could lead to a staggering reduction in the number of vehicles on our roads, with the potential to eliminate 49 out of 50 cars and free up 98% of the space currently reserved for private vehicles. A typical bidirectional road with parallel parking, which currently requires four lanes (two in each direction plus parking on both sides), could be reduced to a single lane. This could be a coordinated bi-directional lane or one-way, representing a 75% reduction in road space. Even when accounting for footpaths, this still results in a 50% reduction in the share of our common areas dedicated to roads.

Such a transformation would free up vast amounts of urban space, paving the way for more pedestrian zones, parks, and community areas. Parking lots, which currently dominate and often blight urban landscapes, could be repurposed into commercial hubs, residential areas, or innovative storage solutions. With all this soon-to-be reclaimed space in our neighbourhoods, homes, and workplaces, what do you envision? How will you reshape your surroundings?

Ripple Effects on Traffic Dynamics

The integration of AVs into our transportation system further promises to fundamentally alter the very nature of traffic flow. Human driving, while intuitive, is inherently imperfect and subject to concepts rooted in fluid dynamics. Traffic waves and the accordion effect, phenomena caused by delayed human reactions, often lead to congestion even in the absence of any obvious obstructions. These inefficiencies can cause traffic to come to a standstill, even on highways, due to a single driver’s actions miles ahead. Indeed, it surprises me that AVs have not already been deployed as “pace cars” on busy highways like the Bay Area’s 101, delivering value even before fully deployed.

Autonomous vehicles, with their precision and instantaneous reaction times, can mitigate these issues. By communicating with each other and their environment, and operating on shared algorithms, AVs can maintain consistent speeds and distances, smoothing out the flow of traffic and preventing the formation of traffic waves. This coordination extends to intersections as well. Imagine a future where traffic controls like signage and lights become obsolete. AVs, with their ability to communicate and coordinate in real-time, could seamlessly interleave at intersections, potentially even at full speed, eliminating the need for stops and reducing congestion.

A Climate Boon: AVs are also EVs

Another notable and promising trend in the development of autonomous vehicles is their predominant alignment with electric propulsion. Most AVs being developed and tested are also electric vehicles (EVs). This convergence is a beacon of hope for our planet’s climate, if not necessarily our wider Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) given the raw materials involved. Electric vehicles, with their zero tailpipe emissions, are pivotal in the global push to reduce carbon footprints and combat climate change. Shared electric vehicles, enabled by self-driving technology, take this even further by preventing the significant waste of limited resources that results from increasingly unjustifiable private vehicle ownership.

The idea is not before its time either. My own journey with electric vehicles began in the mid-90s when a college flatmate and I, both Electrical Engineering students at UNSW, embarked on a private project to convert a car to electric. Technically, it was even a hybrid, as we repurposed the space once occupied by the internal combustion engine for a generator. While certainly educational, our endeavour was ahead of its time, contributing to my long-held belief that: “The right idea at the wrong time is the wrong idea.”

Today, the world is ready. Tesla are well on the way to delivering Full Self Driving (FSD) capabilities and have brought the concept of autonomous driving to the forefront of public consciousness, further accelerating the shift in perception of vehicles from mere transportation tools to intelligent agents of mobility. They have also stated their intention to not only offer robotaxi capabilities to existing owners, but also as a standalone offering as soon as 2024. As we grapple with existential environmental challenges, the fusion of AV and EV technologies offer a sustainable path forward, promising substantially cleaner cities and a healthier planet.

The Truly Disruptive Innovation

I often use the late, great Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation theory as a lens to view the world, and it offers a compelling perspective on the rise of autonomous vehicles. Christensen identified two primary forms of disruptive innovation: low-end and new market.

Low-end Disruption: This form of disruption targets market segments that incumbents overlook, often because they’re focused on improving products for their most demanding customers. The disruptors introduce simpler, more affordable solutions that, over time, improve to the point where they can compete with incumbent offerings. In the context of transportation, autonomous vehicles can be seen as a low-end disruption. Initially, AVs entered the market with limitations in range, speed, and operational conditions. However, rapid advancements in technology and infrastructure are propelling them to a point where they can challenge, and potentially displace, traditional vehicles.

Interestingly, Christensen didn’t necessarily view ride-sharing services like Uber as disruptive innovations. These platforms essentially brought the market, long dominated by often dirty, uncomfortable, and unsafe taxis, up to a level of performance customers desired. Taxis, facing stiff competition, have since improved significantly. Yet, in a twist of irony, the hunter has become the hunted. Ride-sharing drivers, who once posed a threat to traditional taxi drivers, now find themselves on the brink of obsolescence as technology, particularly AVs, threatens their livelihood.

New Market Disruption: This form of disruption creates entirely new markets by targeting non-consumers — those who previously didn’t have access to or couldn’t afford the existing solutions in the market. The disruptors introduce solutions tailored to these new segments, turning non-consumers into consumers and carving out entirely new markets. For instance, the rise of delivery robots, like those from Serve Robotics, which also announced its public debut today via a SPAC acquisition, is creating new avenues for commerce and service delivery that didn’t exist before.

On balance, while the pain felt by a single sector, such as ride-sharing drivers, is undeniable, the benefits to society as a whole from these innovations are immense. They promise to transform how we commute, how goods are delivered, and even how cities are designed, justifying the shifts and challenges faced by individual sectors.

Embracing the Future

I’ve been tracking the transition to autonomous vehicles for nearly 15 years. When I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a “Noogler” at Google Zürich, I was privy to an employee presentation on Project Chauffeur, which had kicked off the very year I landed the job in 2009 and went on to become Waymo. This early exposure marked the beginning of my journey in exploring the transformative potential of autonomous vehicles, and as a budding futurist I was immediately enamoured with the idea.

Fundamentally, the shift we’re now witnessing is the transition from transport as a product (cars), to a utility service that could potentially even be sold as a subscription. This mirrors the migration from generators (product) to the electricity grid (utility service), and later the transition from IT as a product (servers) to utility services (“cloud computing”). Just as cloud services democratised access to computing resources (including the GPUs required for AI that are otherwise out of reach for most individuals), autonomous vehicles as a service can democratise mobility, making it more accessible and efficient for all.

As we stand on the cusp of a transportation revolution, it’s essential to approach the future with both excitement and caution. Autonomous vehicles promise not only to reshape our urban landscapes but also to redefine our very understanding of mobility. The ripple effects on traffic dynamics, the potential for reclaiming urban spaces, and the profound socio-economic implications cannot be understated.

Yet, as with any significant shift, there will be challenges. The pain felt by sectors like ride-sharing drivers, who find their roles threatened by technology, is real. However, on balance, the broader benefits to society — from reduced traffic congestion to cleaner air and more pedestrian-friendly cities — make a compelling case for this transition.

Ensuring inclusivity in this new era is also paramount. Every individual, regardless of their physical abilities or socio-economic status, should benefit from the advancements in autonomous transportation. And technology offers solutions, such as AVs audibly announcing their arrival to blind passengers.

In conclusion, as we navigate this transformative period, it’s vital to prioritise fundamental human needs in the Maslowian sense over mere convenience. This approach ensures that the future of transportation is not only efficient and sustainable but also inclusive and centered on genuine human well-being.