Those of a theological bent who concern themselves with problems of free will and predestination (and let’s face it, who doesn’t worry about that from time to time?) will be familiar with the idea of the ‘eternal present’. If God is omniscient then he knows what you are going to do before you do it, thus making your free will an illusion. No, says St. Augustine, he sees all of time spread about before him at once, so ideas of before and after don’t apply. So you can still have your free will and be damned to Hell for making the wrong decision.
Being an observer of the technology industry feels like that sometimes. Because the participants in the industry need to plan their road maps around complementary products that aren’t even here yet, we often feel that we’ve been seeing the same future for a long, long time before it actually arrives. Remember how bored we all got with the endless suggestions that the wireless internet would turn our mobile phones into pocket computers on which we’d make plans and purchases, or watch videos? And now we do.
So perhaps it’s time for a bit of reverse cynicism about the self-driving car. Just because we’ve been hearing about them for a very long time isn’t proof that they won’t actually arrive one day. The constant drip of not very interesting news about new trials of self-driving cars seems almost intended to inoculate us against taking the whole thing too seriously or thinking about the long term implications. Does it really matter that Google is now testing the cars in Austin, Texas as well as in California?
Fortunately, others are doing some of that thinking. A new report by a Barclays analyst, Brian A. Johnson, argues that the advent of the self-driving car will lead to a 40 percent drop in US car sales and a 50 percent drop in car ownership. That’s partly because Google’s vision for the autonomous vehicle is not only that it’ll be clever, but that it will be part of a cars-as-a-service proposition. We’ll call up a car when we need to go somewhere, and then it’ll take itself off somewhere and go to sleep until someone else needs it. The report cites analysis by University of Texas researchers which, it says, shows that every self-driving car on the road could substitute for nine traditional cars.
This rather begs the question as to why car makers are all rushing to create their own self-driving vehicles. BMW, Audi, Volvo, Ford and most of the others have all shown off the results of their efforts so far. All those in favour of an early Christmas please raise their wings now. One possibility is that the point of the self-driving ‘journey’ is not to arrive at the end-point of fully autonomous cars, but to pick up all of the semi-autonomous Advanced Driver Assistance Systems benefits along the way. Just like we got Teflon, and Velcro, and the upside-down ballpoint, from the US Space Program, right?
Since car makers are finding it increasingly hard to differentiate their products this is at least plausible. Or, perhaps they each understand that overall sales will fall, but calculate that they’ll be hit less hard than their peers if they have a self-driving offering and the others don’t. In any case, I won’t be holding my breath. I suspect that Google’s suggestion that autonomous vehicles will be commercial by 2020 is too early, particularly since it seems that even making secure keyless entry and ignition systems is a bit challenging.
It’s interesting that despite all we hear about connected cars being ‘smartphones on wheels’, JLR had to arrange a physical recall for 65,000 cars to fix this problem. Over-the-air updates for vehicle software are a great idea, but still a work in progress. Though come to think of it, if even the keyless entry systems aren’t secure enough, maybe that’s just as well.
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