Tuesday, August 21, 2012

WSJ: "Paving the Way for Driverless Cars"

One technological development I'm watching for is the driverless car. This great WSJ article summarizes the possibilities that they offer:

On local streets, signal timing contributes to hundreds of millions of vehicle hours of annual delay because it is based on out-of-date historical data that inaccurately measure relative traffic volumes at intersections. Without signals based on real-time traffic flows, driverless vehicles may not be able to accurately align their speeds with them.
The driverless car represents one of the most amazing breakthroughs in safety and quality of life in recent history. Instead of focusing on enormously expensive high-speed rail as our transportation future, the government would do well to stop hindering driverless cars by its obsolete thinking about our nation's roads.
Of course, coordination between driverless cars could allow much more efficient traffic management and use of the road network. Another bullish take,
"the driverless car [is] as important as anything developed between 1930 and 1970. It will do the work that currently occupies something like 3% of our workforce full time AND save driving time for the rest of us AND reduce transport costs by eliminating the need for individual cars AND reduce need for parking lots. And it won’t take many of Google’s billions to develop."
The driverless car invention will be absolutely amazing and substantially increase productivity. If combined with two additional inventions it would be extraordinary: thorium power and electric vehicles. That would mean that transportation could be basically free.

Right now transportation is pretty expensive. What would change if the marginal cost fell drastically, an order of magnitude or more? The best way to think about this (h/t to a correspondent) is Gilder's Law - "the best business models waste the era's cheapest resources in order to conserve the era's most expensive resources."

What if, in addition to computing power, transportation over land was nearly free? Right now an expensive resource is real estate. Coveted urban real estate (~1% of land) is 3,4,5 orders of magnitude more expensive than the median. So warehouse your goods someplace cheap and truck them to the consumer instead of having a big box store (this trend is already in place).  

What else might change? How much easier would it be to borrow something if it could be brought to you with no human intervention? So, why own goods that are rarely used - rent them. Again, something that is already happening with power tools, for example.


Peter Thompson said...

The driverless car is like something out of a science fiction story, but it really does seem like something like this is moving closer to reality. It will all be software based of course, and seems like it would build on current GPS technology. The question is, who will have the courage to be an early adopter?!
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Unknown said...

I can't see driverless cars succeeding in cities. Too crowded, too many sensors needed to avoid people or animals who step into the street.

I think the success will come from driverless trucks on the highway. Combine with natural gas, wither the teamsters.

CP said...

Sure, maybe not yet.

And the highway trucks will be one of the most important uses.