Trust me. I know what I'm doing.
In both a recent article
, the New York Times discusses Google's apparent mid-course correction in its quest to make driverless cars a reality in our time. Out are the tech-tricked Lexus SUVs Sergey Brin has been pimping for four years now, with their quaint relic steering wheels and brake and accelerator pedals. In are cute little Google-designed two-seater city-sized bubble cars (see photo above) with, importantly, no conventional driver controls whatsoever...replaced by a single "e-stop" panic button.
Google engineers realized that asking a human passenger [...] to take over in an emergency won’t work. “We saw stuff that made us a little nervous,” said Christopher Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon University roboticist who directs the car project at Google.
Future fleets of right-sized, fully automated GoogleCars, individually summoned at the tap of a smartphone app, offer such obvious benefits for urbanites and the environment alike that one might be forgiven for viewing these cars to be as inevitable as Hillary Clinton's nomination. It's a safe assumption that Google's marketing and lobbying arms will do a top-notch job of enumerating and promoting those many advantages, so we needn't do so here. But envisioning some of a new technology's unintended consequences
-- and every new technology has 'em -- isn't a job for its innovators, but rather for The Rest of Us. Contributing to such a discussion doesn't make you a Neo-Luddite or reactionary naysayer. Rather, it is an important but too often neglected contribution to the innovation process itself.
Below the fold I'll kick off the discussion by listing a few of the most important uh-ohs I believe I can see coming as these intentionally cherubic-faced carlets begin to fundamentally reshape how we move through life. Please join in with your own thoughts.
The Business Model:
Any useful unintended consequences analysis needs to begin with a careful consideration of how, exactly, the new technology will be provided to the market, and how its consumers will interact with it. Technologies themselves, considered in a vacuum, are ethically and socially neutral; it is how we buy them, sell them, and use them that have consequences for good or ill.
As a tech-focused businessperson myself, I'm quite confident that the dominant business model for small, fully automated vehicles such as these GoogleCars will not involve individual private sales and ownership. Instead, corporations or (much less likely) municipalities will maintain fleets of these vehicles for hire: they will scoot around cities picking up and dropping off their 'fares,' placing themselves in and out of service for recharging, maintenance, or repair, dynamically cooperating among themselves to pre-position cars awaiting their next fares to be wherever the moment's greatest need (and revenue) are. And, indeed, Google seems to view the market opportunity the same way:
Last year, Lawrence D. Burns, former vice president for research and development at General Motors and now a Google consultant, led a study at the Earth Institute at Columbia University on transforming personal mobility.
The researchers found that Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 m.p.h., carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.
In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute. Assuming a 15 percent profit, the current cost of taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.
The business proposition will be extremely compelling for prospective fleet operators: take all the expensive and messy 'human resources' out of today's taxi and livery service equation (drivers, dispatchers, skilled mechanics, lot boys, supervisors, and the rest) plus their overhead, and profit margins will soar. Sure, the price to the consumer could
drop from today's $4.00 per mile to as little as 50 cents, but you and I both know that ain't gonna happen without unprecedented and ever-sustained voter pressure on licensing agencies...pressure that will be more than matched by well-heeled fleet operators with dollar signs in their eyes.
Every new technology nukes a certain number of jobs; that's a given. This technology will start off nuking 50,000 cab driver jobs in NYC alone, plus unknown numbers of supervisors, dispatchers, and livery drivers. Let's say 100,000 total. Multiply even just a quarter of that number by the 130 or so largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. and you're talking about 3.3 million lost jobs in the U.S. alone. Also take into consideration the rest of the G8 nations, and you're talking many tens of millions of today's jobs gone the way of the buggy whip.
Of course, new technologies also create new jobs. But let's be realistic: they won't be good ones, they won't be in the U.S., and they won't even come close to replacing the jobs lost. These simple little GoogleCars will, by design, be incredibly easy and inexpensive to build: bolt together an electric motor, a battery, four wheels, a computer, and some plastic, and you're good to go. So kiss goodbye, as well, the better part of 3.7 million U.S. automotive industry jobs, and say hello to a few hundred new jobs in Bangladesh. These cars will not only be simple, they'll be highly modular: repair (assuming it will even be cost-effective to repair them, rather than just recycling broken ones) will involve nothing more than swapping out one of a few major modules, a task ideally suited to robots at centralized facilities. So likewise kiss goodbye unknown millions of auto mechanic and technician jobs around the world, as well.
If you think today's net neutrality controversy poses some worrisome equity issues, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Count on the fact that the second question your GoogleCar will ask you (after "where would you like to go today?") will be "...and how fast would you like to get there?" Today, on the vast majority of streets and highways of the world, the poorest among us in their oil-burning clunkers and the richest in their chauffeured Mercedes contend on marvelously equal terms: traffic flows for all at the same rate (except, of course, where toll-based express lanes exist, but these are still just a very tiny minority of all road miles). Inevitably, tomorrow's GoogleCars will conspire (excuse me: cooperate) to insure that those who pay more get to their destinations faster, on every road, in every city and town. And they'll be served faster, too. Of course, all of this can be avoided via sensible regulation by vigilant licensing agencies...if citizens demand that, and prevail over the one-percenters and fleet operators who will think this is just dandy, thank you.
Driverless, unoccupied GoogleCars will always be a desirable target for thieves. Those high-end electric motors and batteries will fetch a pretty penny on the black market. No, a thief won't be able to break a window, hot-wire the car, and drive away to a chop shop. But then again, he won't have to. Two or three strapping youth could just pick it up, load it on its side on a flatbed truck, and haul it away. Measures to foil this will proliferate...the hapless GoogleCar could always inform the authorities that it is being stolen and provide its location in real time...as will countermeasures. Just close that tiny car in a well-grounded metal box and it is deaf, dumb, blind, and off the grid. As a consequence, fleet operators will inevitably wish to keep their vehicles out of dicey neighborhoods. Today we have laws against this for cabs...but then, cabbies and cab companies aren't a real big special interest group. Tomorrow, when GE or Google are running the show, that will no longer be the case. Will impoverished high-crime neighborhoods thus become 'transportation deserts?'
The NSA and FBI teach us that government is quick to see the advantages new technologies provide it to snoop on us and restrict our freedoms 'for the greater good,' so count on government seeing this one coming. Every trip will be databased in its most minute detail, including the identities of all occupants. Any beat cop will be able to 'freeze' any vehicle, and lock its occupants inside, just by pointing his smartphone camera at it and clicking a button. Any 'emergency zone' can be cleared and barred to all traffic equally easily -- for an hour, or a lifetime. On the other side of the equation, would-be terrorists will love the low cost and incredible convenience of summoning a GoogleCar, packing it with explosives, and directing it wherever the work there is to be done. Are there technology measures that could be used to avoid this? Sure. And all of them will inspire countermeasures.
OK, so, that's my dystopian nightmare regarding this fast-approaching technology. What's yours?