Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Auto-autos - a little less biology in the loop

What I hear at the water cooler

I recently visited the Silicon Valley Open Source Automotive meetup at HackerDojo. Ostensibly required reading ahead of the meeting was the wired article on auto-autos. You kind of have to read that one as a backgrounder, but the summary: google already has dozens of robotic cars on the road driving around with you, and they are better drivers than humans. Been that way for a while. Yeah. I was surprised too. But wake up and smell the robotic equivalent of coffee, whatever that is. (Or just watch these robots make breakfast instead.)

Anyway, had a nice chat with some knowledgeable people. Some similar opinions to what I heard from electric car junkies at CES. Consensus at the meeting was in line with the wired article concerning the timeframe for commercial availability of auto-autos - 10 years or so.

What seemed to be totally unknown was the business model. Even the little baby steps of car automation, auto-parking, nicer computing systems with heads up displays, etc. are out of reach of the average consumer due to price concerns. Actually, I can't immediately think of any future car technologies that would save money on the initial purchase price of an automobile. So although everyone seems to accept that self-driving electric-hybrid robotic cars are the future, no one has a clear grasp on the business model that will enable that future. FWIW, from what I hear, that is the consensus at all the clued in major auto makers.

What we are on the cusp of is a form of transportation with a 10X advantage over what exists (at a higher initial price). You park it anywhere, and you can let it automatically drive you. It's safer, cheaper on energy, and frees up your time. It's like having a driver pull up when you want him, and chauffer you around. With luck, an auto-auto can drop you and park itself somewhere convenient (seriously, who wants spend their time parking or paying someone to drive you). Rich people will just buy these things outright, but the rest of us need another model.

A cursory amount of research reveals that big rental car companies are already renting electric cars. Local government intervention and purchase of advanced vehicle fleets occasionally pushes clean car tech as well. Without conflating electric cars with auto-autos too much, I believe that the markets and challenges are similar for both technologies.

Spin we're likely to hear

Briefly I'll mention psychology. There is, of course, fear - range anxiety, and any other anxiety that you can whip up in people about new car technology - this will definitely kill individual purchases. Certain segments of the American market which are primarily driven by fear are ... unretrievable. Those people will buy only what they are told to. But with a 10X value advantage the rest of us will get over that fear. Interesting thought - corporations are motivated to uncover the facts behind the FUD to improve the bottom line - corporations are FUD creators, not FUD consumers! Corporations are not easily scared away from value.

The energy industry has to be considering which side to weigh in on. Oil demand destruction is not in line with oil company interests. Interests that can afford the best congresspeople money can buy. Exxon predicts 60% of cars will be gas-only, 40% hybrid, by 2040, with a negligible sprinking of fully electric vehicles. Not in line with what I've been hearing elsewhere. Interestingly, though, they expect all oil demand increases to come from the commercial sector. On the other hand, it seems at least some public utilities might stand to gain power through charging and other infrastructure. They are also fleet customers.

Finally, there is no legal framework for robots driving cars, particularly without a human in the loop. However, everyone seems to be looking the other way right now. This is where the opponents will hit hard and fast, buying congressmen like it's black friday.

Smarmy smarty-pants ill-informed theory

It seems that fleets are the current wedge by which electric vehicles and auto-autos are entering the market. And since even electric car nuts won't pop for the first auto-autos, renting from fleets makes sense, ala the carsharing models of zipcar, u-car-share, philly-car-share, hertz on-demand, etc. etc. Auto-autos actually make perfect sense for these fleets from an insurance perspective as well as an efficiency perspective, especially if the law will look the other way to driverless auto-autos.

Cab companies will love them as well. Cabbies will not. If there is any middle class left in the US in 10 or 20 years, they will probably be more likely to call an auto-auto to get to work than a cabbie.

First we replace the horse, then the rider.

We used to ride horses around. That lasted for what, 1000 years? It's still cool to own a horse and ride it around, for fun, I mean, but it's getting rare. Farming is done by robots, self-flying planes are almost there. Automatic cars are so close we can taste it. Tastes like robot.

Also see Brad Templetons stuff:

talk slides


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