About 125 years ago, when the internal combustion engine supplanted equine power for personal mobility, there was much talk regarding “horseless carriages,” defining the future in terms of the past. We are at much the same juncture today: as electric autonomous vehicles come closer and closer to mass-market availability, much of the conversation starts with what we know human drivers do: “How will self-driving cars avoid bicyclists? How will self-driving cars merge in construction zones? How will self-driving cars make left turns across oncoming traffic with solar glare?” All of these questions must be answered, of course, but I believe it’s not too early to ask what we want of the _next_ car, the one(s) with a largely new set of constraints and capabilities. That is, given a clean-sheet design, what are some questions we might ask? Here are three among many.
1) How do we balance autonomy with “mesh transportation”?
definition, a driver in a car is largely autonomous and disconnected
from the cognition of those around; “what was he thinking?” is a common
complaint while observing other drivers. The person at the wheel can
follow or ignore traffic laws, brake suddenly or gradually, act with
awareness of other vehicles or possess limited situational awareness.
There are many consequences of this autonomy: cars have long been
associated with personal “freedom,” traffic flows in an annoying and
predictable accordion pattern in congested stretches of highway, and of
course accidents happen when driver A somehow surprises driver B.
driverless vehicles constitute some critical mass of traffic, however,
that assumption of autonomy can be challenged. My current frame of
reference is a mesh wireless network, a potentially peer-to-peer ad hoc
configuration of cars both interacting with vehicles close to them and
serving as repeaters for less proximate “nodes.” A simple scenario
started my thinking: what if a truck stuck in traffic wanted to see the
sensor feed from the car at the front of the pack? Already, Samsung has
shown a heavy truck with an LCD display on the rear showing the view out
Once my vehicle can “see” the sensors n cars ahead, what else can
Although sensor-driven autonomous vehicles are getting
substantial attention from Uber, Google, and Tesla, the notions of
vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) are also
gaining mindshare. Already emergency vehicles can trigger stoplights at
some intersections (green for the ambulance, red for the cross-streets),
it doesn’t require an enormous leap of imagination to get to cars
addressing and listening to the signaling infrastructure: why train a
self-driving car to understand (or memorize) speed-limit signs when the
information could be available via wireless beacons? The appeal of V2V
is obvious, as per the “what was he thinking?“ scenario above: if
vehicle A can signal intent with more lead time, more consistently, to
more of the relevant peers and bystanders, the safer matters should
For years, European companies have been trialing road trains: a lead heavy truck invites close followers (who hand control off
to a wi-fi network) to ride in its wake. The tighter following
distances improve fuel economy and free drivers to attend to less
mundane chores. Now what happens when self-driving vehicles can self-assemble? If 8 or
10 cars and trucks all enter I-95 from around Princeton going
northbound, what if they form a road train until the first of the
vehicles comes to its exit? And what if there’s a mechanical connection,
like those magnets on wooden train sets? Road utilization improves,
fuel economy improves, and the lack of human drivers means nobody is
bothered by the unappealing view of the vehicle ahead.
currently lousy security of Internet of Things things in general, and of
wireless car systems in particular, for
this mesh-vehicle future to be safe, there will need to be massive
strides in, and probably complete rethinking of, security practices.
This means clearly understanding the trade-offs that are being asked and
granted. The security domain thus echoes the larger debate that will
emerge as to what vehicles can and cannot, should and should not, tell
and learn in interaction with other vehicles and the world.
2) What happens when cars don’t project personal identity?
know something of my readership. You’ve driven stealth M3s, E-types,
Z06 Vettes, and of course 911s. This is not mass-market car-dom, but the
extreme proves my point. In many cases, vehicles are designed as much
as a projection of the owner’s psyche as they are for road performance.
Compare a Suburban to a minivan, or a new pickup truck to a 30-year-old
version. Absent towing capacity, the functional performance may be
similar but the features, price (I didn’t say cost: GM builds massive
profit into that Suburban), and enhancement of one’s personal brand are
Auto executives have already begun publicly
worrying about vehicles designed and sold only as appliances: if people
buy transportation as a service rather than as a product, the design
remit changes. As a rider, I certainly prefer the S-class Mercedes taxis
common in Europe to the cramped Priuses (Prii?) I get in US cities. Do I
insist on a certain type of car to haul me around, especially when
nobody will see it in my driveway either way? No way. Once autonomous
vehicles are optimized for whatever we decide to optimize (please make
the London taxi one of the blueprints . . .), conspicuous consumption
will fall far down the list, particularly for mass-market cars and
trucks. (Read more here and here.)
3) What happens if safety is reset to a higher priority?
a famous assignment given to engineering students: design a protective
enclosure such that the egg inside it can survive a fall of a specified
height. I thought of it immediately when I saw this effort by an MIT team to understand safety trade-offs to be encoded in autonomous vehicle
Why the egg drop? All
of the Moral Machine scenarios embed numerous assumptions; I wanted to
challenge those, not take them as given. The passenger cocoon could be
one such: when we design, license, and support different vehicle
designs, what do we want optimized? Should pedestrian safety be a
higher priority than what happens to a car’s passengers? Why or why not?
To give an example, Google has a patent on a flypaper-like technology to snag people on car hoods after they’ve been struck.
How will we set the weights of protection for passengers, cargo,
pedestrians, bicyclists, driveway shrubbery, and other features of the
driving environment? How much will this be done by markets, how much
self-policing will we see, and how much government regulation will be
If safety is a higher priority than it is today, why
have windows at all? Boeing has suggested replacing airplane windows with display screens, so why not equip cars the same way? At the same time, if passengers are cosseted in metal tank-like
vehicles, what unintended consequences could there be for driving
algorithms, bystanders, and even fast-food restaurants?
interstate highways, McDonald's, and suburban sprawl could not have been
foreseen by Daimler, Ford, and Durant, we will see parallel
discontinuities in the coming century. Railroad ownership, to take one
example, went from being the source of massive wealth and prestige (as
with Stanford or Vanderbilt) to a joke (Conrail) in a relative short
time. Entirely new ancillary services and industries emerged, and may
now recede: will anyone become a billionaire owning parking lots in the
next 30 years?
A key question relates, as it always does, to the
speed of the transition. From an engineering standpoint, designing a
world of only autonomous vehicles would be relatively easy; similarly,
we know how to build roads, vehicles, and venues for cars with people
driving them. The mixed zone, to borrow a term from the Olympics, is
what we currently face, and it’s one hard problem on top of another:
are the business models? (Google is struggling with this as I write,
having replaced a respected-but-departed roboticist with an AirBnB
executive to run the car project.) Who bears liability? Who pays to
upgrade the infrastructure, whether to fill potholes or install beacons
in road signs? What signaling conventions can carry over and what new
ones need to be designed; can the camera of a self-driving truck
reliably see a turn signal or is a radio message more appropriate? Where
will trusted suppliers come from (Panasonic, a partner in Tesla’s
battery factory, is emerging as a big player in the global automotive
ecosystem, for example)? What about car loan companies, service bays,
and other businesses whose mission will be redefined? How will gas
stations as real estate, and oil companies as businesses, be forced to
evolve (charging a battery takes a lot longer than filling a tank: how
many 20-pump gas stations will become 20-plug chargers? Can local
electric grids handle such concentration?) Which brands will win and
lose? Why? How will human-driven cars fade into antiquity? Will valets,
for example, be kept on for ceremonial value at high-end destinations?
Which internal-combustion vehicles will have the longest carriers in the
new era, and which will be most prized by collectors? What happens to
the freed-up parking and other infrastructure? Does congestion pricing
a) disappear or b) enter a new phase of complexity? What happens to
municipal revenues dependent on traffic tickets? How will domestic
architecture evolve without the need for the same size and type of
garages? Where will housing be located relative to work? The list goes
on, but suffice it to say, Detroit and its extended network is in for
the shock of a lifetime.
Postscript: As I was wrapping up this
newsletter, tech analyst Benedict Evans of Andreesen Horowitz posted a series of Tweets asking many of these same questions.