Autonomous Vehicles, Expect the Unexpected

18 thoughts on “Autonomous Vehicles, Expect the Unexpected”

  1. I think most trucking would be going away anyway. Autonomous trucks will likely be used just for the last one to 20 miles of delivery from rail freight terminals. Currently rail moves freight with 1/8th the energy per ton per mile as trucking. Add in regenerative braking and electrification of the most heavily-used freight lines, and rail freight will drop to 1/20th the energy of trucking. Trip optimization algorithms, advanced scheduling, optimized computer-controlled railyards, double-tracking of heavily used lines (all already underway) and freight circumvention of Chicago (the black hole of freight movement) will double freight speed to 50 mph which nearly matches trucking. In addition, rail tracks are much, much (much!) cheaper to maintain per mile than highways.

    Lots and lots of jobs are going away, including 3/4ths of auto manufacturing jobs since we already have more cars than drivers in this country, and most cars sit idle 95% of the time. (We could probably get by with 1/4th the number we have quite easily.) Check out Eatsa–a restaurant in downtown SF where you order and pay via your phone or an Ipad and pick up your meal from your own personalized cubby when it’s ready. No counter or wait staff (although I imagine someone has to come out and clean tables.) The good news is jobs will be created in bio-intensive no-till farming, deep energy building retrofits, rail infrastructure projects, wetlands restoration, solar PV manufacturing, wind turbine installation, etc.

    Another rather silver lining is that robotic drivers (so far) mow down pedestrians and bicyclists at a fraction of the rate that human drivers do. But it’s true that my ability to be sanguine about the coming changes are due to the fact I live in a walkable city with passable (if sometimes exasperating) public transit, I enjoy riding my bike places, and I’ve done so much driving over the years that I’m thoroughly sick of it.

    1. I’m in agreement with you that energy intensive activities of all kinds will be squeezed out of the economy over this century as fuel stocks are depleted and energy prices rise. New technology will continue to deliver new sources of energy, but at consistently higher prices. Relocalization will be a financial necessity, not a discretionary lifestyle choice. The pressure for automation will co-evolve along with depletion in an attempt to control costs. I expect a lot of diminishing returns over time.

      The Eatsa-restaurant format is a new twist on the old Automat concept that’s been around since the early twentieth century.

      1. Yes, Eatsa is like a make-to-order automat. What I think it foretells is getting all ordering and payment automated in fast food and chain restaurants. It would be easy to put an ipad on every table to do what waitresses do–far simpler and would require fewer approvals than getting autonomous vehicles on the road. 3.5 million people currently work in fast food. (There are also 3.5 million who work as truckers.) I would guess at least a third, maybe half of fast food jobs will be gone within 5 years.

        1. Yes, we’ll be seeing more of anything that squeezes labor out of the business model as time goes by. New jobs will be created since someone needs to create, build, and service the automated equipment and software, but those will be more skilled jobs that require education. The real problem is what to do with all the redundant low skilled workers? That’s a political and social problem we don’t yet have a solution for.

  2. Robotics/automation is a long term trend which I believe will roll out slower than anyone thinks. It’s just a very visible disruption (read: will be litigated, easy target for politicians, etc.), and it’s also complicated and expensive to get robots (of which autonomous cars a subset) to play nice in the flesh and blood world.

    The other trend you touch on – Big Data – is already here and silently enveloping our lives. Really, Big Data is just a euphemism for 24-7 monitoring of the populace to maximize profit and control. Not that they would put it that way! But seriously, the online world is already A/B tested to hell and the real world is next via another cute euphemism: The Internet of Things.

    Obviously, all these trends are related. Here’s a talk that brings some strands together: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/archive/podcast/douglas-rushkoff-throwing-rocks-google-bus%E2%80%94how-growth-became-enemy-prosperity

    1. Funny, the “Internet of Things” (perpetual surveillance and subtle control of everyone and everything all the time) is the topic of an upcoming blog post. And yes, I’m familiar with Douglas Rushkoff’s work. I live around the corner from one of the famed rocks-and-Google-bus incident sites.

  3. The second-order effect from the automation of the trucking industry are going to be huge. All of those rural areas near the interstate are sustained by the money that truckers spend at truck stops. It’s billions of dollars a year, millions of jobs will be lost. Over the next couple of generations, we’re going to see those towns become true ghost towns, just like what happened to the mining and rail towns in the west once the mines stopped producing and the railroad was bypassed by the car.

  4. Re. trucking, I think there will still be a market for humans in the trucks acting essentially as chaperones. They will sit in the vehicle and make sure that if it breaks down in some way, it can be repaired. They can also make sure the trucks aren’t hijacked, and (as they often do now) load and unload the trucks. So they will have to be mechanics (up to a point), security guards, and freight loaders.

    Another thing I was considering is smaller-scale companies. Will they be slow adopters? Unless its affordable, probably so. For instance, a small local plumbing company with say 2 – 5 company trucks. They only need to drive a few miles in a certain radius to get to jobs. It might not be profitable to buy new autonomous trucks, or even autonomous retrofits for their trucks, unless as you say there is a huge disparity in insurance rates.

    1. Re: security. Trucks as well as each individual item being hauled are increasingly tracked in real time by satellites and/or tagged with RFID chips. Things can be stolen, but the owners and police know exactly where it to find them. It makes crime more challenging.

      Re: chaperones. Mechanics and troubleshooters will be more effective if they are pre-existing workers on the ground along the travel routes (think AAA) rather than humans sitting in the trucks all day and night.

      Trucks will be loaded and unloaded by an ever smaller number of humans that are guided by computers and helped with heavy lifting machinery. All of this is about squeezing labor and cost out of the process.

      As is true today, large companies will be the low cost winners for the mass market. (Walmart, Target, IKEA, Home Depot, Kroger, Safeway, Publix) while smaller local businesses are less efficient and more expensive. For low income people in underserved areas prices will be higher at the low quality corner shop. For high income people in rich neighborhoods prices will be higher at the boutique luxury local shop.

      Over time “soft” costs like insurance as well as intensified law enforcement will pull people off the road in favor of self driving vehicles – or people will find ways to not drive at all by working from home or living in a walkable neighborhood. This will take a generation or more to play out.

      There’s one caveat. Since all of this depends on ever more complex integrated systems there will be new vulnerabilities. Criminals and malicious nation states might hack the navigation and control systems for profit or sabotage. There’s also a trade off with complexity and resilience. The system that is coming will be more fragile and susceptible to stresses and shocks.

  5. Speaking of traffic….In the past week, school has been out in the LA area. I noticed a HUGE reduction in the amount of cars on the road. Many, many people drive their children to school whether it’s public or private. There are people who live in Van Nuys whose children attend school in Los Feliz and children who live in Pacific Palisades who go to class in Studio City. It’s really insane to me. We have a nation of fat people, overworked people, and underlying a lot of our city school choices is the unspoken fact that the public schools are overwhelmingly peopled by immigrant children and underfunded. Even if the day comes when there are driverless vehicles all around the city, I wonder if children will ever again walk to their local school?

    1. I know a young guy here in San Francisco who works for a tech company that organizes an Uber type shuttle service for Christian school children in the suburbs. They’re rapidly ramping up across the country.

      The need for more efficient transportation for private school children is big since more and more parents are opting out of the public school system and want nothing to do with traditional transit. Commuting to the “good” (we all know what that means) private schools is time consuming for all those individual soccer moms. The particular brand identity of this tech firm involves a highly screened and vetted group of hired drivers, added security procedures, and heavily insured vehicles. It’s basically offering a version of Google bus service to freaked out families who are looking to work-around public schools and public transit.

    2. In some areas in US, there are more good quality choice public (magnet, high-talented etc) schools.

      I think public school choice is a fundamentally good thing to have, it severs the ties between postcode and school attendance, it allows parents to widen the area they’d consider living regardless of the quality of local school district etc. This has a lot of societal benefits that far outweigh increased transportation.

      Self-driven school vans and the like might also greatly reduce the need for individual parents to drive their children to far-away schools (transit could also help).

      1. The darker side of school choice is the fact that people are forced or feel the need to send their children to far away schools where they must pay high tuition for that which public schools provide free. If not for the influx of many immigrants and school busing, there probably would still be good local schools. But race, class and re-segregation are contributing to school choice and the traffic on our streets.

      2. “School choice” and “magnet schools” and “charter schools” are simply the newest incarnation of a longstanding American tradition. We don’t believe that all public schools can or should be good. Deep down we want “bad” people to go to “bad” schools and “good” people to go to “good” schools. The insecure middle class will do absolutely anything to avoid sending their kids to the wrong school.

        At the moment the locations with the most active school “innovation” are places with shifting demographics. In order to attract “better” people to your “bad” neighborhood you need to provide schools that filter out the “bad” kids. This is the beginning, middle, and end of school choice systems.

  6. I’m curious what you estimate the overall timeline for this to be. No doubt all the stuff you’ve listed and more are the goals of the people developing these systems and the municipalities they service, but “on track to have products on the road in four or five years” doesn’t mean a lot.

    The highway part of long haul trucking will be the first to go, and will be devastating to truckers, but someone is going to need to drive trucks on urban and suburban streets.

    It’s surprising insurance companies haven’t been requiring full monitoring already.

    1. Like all new technologies these things will be phased in over a generation or more. I remember being told by an industry insider back in 1982 that someday there will be satellite dishes as small as dinner plates and we’ll have 800 TV channels to choose from. This was in the days of VCRs and cable television when satellite dishes were the size of swimming pools.

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