Autonomous Vehicles: 5 questions we need to start asking

“Write science fiction. The new realities you conceive will either be coded and built or legislated against.” — Tim Berners-Lee

I once asked Sir Tim (inventor of the World Wide Web), “What can we do to ensure Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence have a positive impact on humanity?”

His answer: “Write Science Fiction…”

Autonomous Vehicles (“AVs”) may be the disruptive innovation of our generation. Technical and legal challenges get a lot of coverage. We need to consider the human challenges too.

Let’s take some ideas about the future of mobility, grab a handful of science fiction, then throw them in a blender. Some “buzz” is inevitable, but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

1. Should we push driverless cars forward or hold them back?

The good:

  • AVs will not be parked (much); freeing swathes of urban areas to become homes, businesses and parks.
  • AVs should not kill people; promising an end to almost all the ~1 Million worldwide deaths from car accidents each year.

Benedict Evans at a16z has this take on the positive financial impact:

The bad:

  • AVs will not need human drivers leading to millions of job losses (or job changes).¹

2. AVs will super-charge tech’s second wave. Could they lead a third?

Tech’s first wave carried information. Bits moved bits. Now in its second wave, tech uses bits to move atoms. Ride-hailing companies - Uber and Lyft - show how software can change how physical things — cars, people and goods — move through the world. Autonomy will enable an explosion of new mobility services.

Will autonomy also change how we perceive cars? AVs can move themselves 🤖🚗. They will seem alive. Don’t take it from me. Take it from someone smarter:

“Movement is life.”
- Aristotle (not caught-up in self-driving car hype)

I saw a chart (hat-tip Sequoia) of mobility players along an axis; from the vehicle (Ford, GM, Toyota), to the passenger (Lyft, Uber). We may need to extend this axis. For now, the closest passengers get to cars is fingertips — resting on a steering wheel or tapping the screen of a smartphone app. As AVs appear more alive, our relationship can extend beyond — into our hearts and minds.

With AVs, we will be moved. Not “moved” like sacks of cocoa beans round a chocolate factory. Moved moved. Moved to take action. Moved to affection. Moved to tears.

3. We talk a lot about what AVs might do. What might AVs be?

We could build a remote control for your car — the ability to summon and direct your vehicle from your smartphone. Some major players are pursuing this route. But is that what we want? Do we want AVs — robots on wheels — to be silent servants that fulfil our commands? Well, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or read this recent article in Nature. Spoiler alert — no, it’s not!

HAL 9000 is smarter than us. Cryteria, from Wikimedia Commons

This dynamic does not end well. In the same 1920’s play where Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” these machines rebel and become the masters. It’s a paranoia that’s still around.

In contrast, Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig delivers his post (translation: mail), but she is more than a message server. She can move herself and take her own initiative. When MSN shutdown, you may have felt sad. Did you feel this sad?!

Hedwig’s self-sacrifice.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

4. Man’s (new) best friend. Will AVs be more like pets than PCs?

Keith Hennessey, who teaches The Open Road at Stanford hit me with a left-field question, “Where on the Autonomous Scale from 0–5 would a horse be?” (The Autonomous Scale is roughly 0: totally non-autonomous car, 5: car driving itself anytime anywhere). I said a horse could be Level 2 to Level 5+. Why so high? My dad had told me about a rider he once knew. At the end of the day, he could drop the reins and his horse would find its way home. The rider was blind.

AVs (and machine learning / artificial intelligence more broadly) will have superhuman capabilities. This should not scare us. Humans have a long (long) history of adopting into our lives and society other beings that are more capable than us. A few examples:

Pets that have superpowers

These animals matter, not because they are “like” us, but because they are more capable than us (even if only in a narrow field). They can ignore, and if needs be, injure, overpower or just abandon us. And the result? We don’t control them. We cherish them.

“When your horse follows you without being asked, when he rubs his head on yours, and when you look at him and feel a tingle down your spine…you know you are loved.”
— John Lyons

5. Closing the loop. What can you do?

AVs matter. They will do good and bad to the world. Thinking wildly about impacts on humanity — drawing on science fiction, fantasy and natural history — can help us decide what to drive forward and what to protect against.

Tech’s Third Wave: bits move atoms move neurons…

Their ability to move themselves will make AVs seem more alive than other machines. This should not scare us — if we do it right. Treating something as inferior leaves us paranoid that the roles might one day be reversed. When we acknowledge that something or someone is better, we adore them.

Empathetic connection will enable a third wave for tech. It may be the final phase; creating a complete loop where software (bits) drives AVs (atoms) firing emotions (neurons) causing further actions.

I don’t have conclusions — just incredible excitement at the possibilities and concern that they be pursued in the right way.

I’m going to sign-off with a thought from a friend and adviser, Brandon:

“It’s not enough to make people’s lives easier. We need to make their lives better.”

That’s the challenge for all of us.


James Pelly is CEO at OXO ( Recently graduated from Stanford and now based in San Francisco, James is always excited to talk with people who care about:

  • machine learning
  • autonomous vehicles
  • sharing economy
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  1. Re. driver job losses, Harry Campbell (The Rideshare Guy) highlights driver tasks that will be hard to automate. Spoiler: it involves 🤮)

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