I'm really enjoying my new job at Nokia. Unfortunately there is not much I can talk about since I'm exclusively doing research for future products. This is a change for me. I'm used to talking about what I work on. In fact, it's been my job for the past 4 years to do just that. On the other hand, the reduced travel schedule has given me more time to think about other non-smartphone related things, which is quite a nice change. And last week I came to a realization: driverless cars will change everything.
Self driving cars have been on the horizon for decades. I once saw an 'educational film' from the mid 50s that talked about cars which would communicate with radio and drive 200mph. The idea that they are finally close to being here is nice, but now we have to confront the reality of them. Will self driving cars simply enable our current car lifestyle with extra Facebooking time, or will a world of self driving cars create more changes. I'm starting to think the latter.
The automobile is a very inefficient technology. I'm not talking about the internal combustion engine running gasoline. On the contrary, gas is quite good at what it does. It packs more energy per cubic inch or pound than any battery we have yet invented. That's why it's been so hard for electrics to take off. No, what I'm talking about is the entire ecosystem around automobiles.
In America, at least, we devote a large portion of real estate to cars in the form of roads, parking lots and driveways. Yet at any given time most of this space is unused. And by most I mean 99% of the time. Most parking lots are not used at all at night and driveways are not used during daylight. Roads are barely used at night. Even during the day any given patch of road is mostly empty. Even in rush our traffic the cars still have a length or two of empty space between them. That's a lot of unused space.
Now imagine a world where all cars drive themselves. They would never have to park! A car would drop you off wherever you want to go and then leave, returning later to pick you up. Cars could drive far closer together and at higher speed, and on narrower highways.
Now imagine you don't need to actually own a car, but simply rent it whenever you need it. Essentially a robo-taxi far cheaper than a human. This means you would never need to own a car, find a place to park, or have a driveway. Garages would no longer have to be a part of house architecture (to be replaced with an awesome workshop, of course).
Beyond space and convenience of selfdriving cars, they also enable car use by people who couldn't use them before. Children going to school or the library. Seniors whose eyesight is failing. The blind. People recovering from leg surgery. Anyone who can't drive for any reason, could now have the freedom to travel anywhere they want.
Which brings me to my next point. A car which drives fast and safely through any terrain starts to become very competitive with airtravel, at least for any trip under 1000 miles. For example, I regularly fly from Eugene Oregon to San Jose. It's a trip of about 600 miles but requires a stopover in a hub city (usually Portland). Once I add in checking luggage, going through security, take off and landing time, and the other usual headaches of air travel; what should have been a 60 minute flight as the crow files has now become at least 3 hours, sometimes 4 or 5. I can actually drive the same distance in 9, and have done so on occasion. If a self driving car could do twice the speed as a falible human, then it could take me just as fast as the airplane. Even better, cars are getting more environment friendly as they switch to alternative fuels. Airplanes have no real alternatives to jet fuel.
Now, I'm not saying these changes would happen over night. They would probably take 50 years or longer. We can't simply rebuild our cities around selfdriving cars. But the change will happen eventually.
I can't wait to have my robo-chauffer drive me from New York to London over a 2 week vacation (via the Trans-Bering-Strait bridge, of course)
posted Tue May 22 2012