We like to move it, move it.
“In 2028, the city [Boston] released a tender for franchises to operate an automated freight delivery system that would operate only at night, when the sleepy city’s streets were mostly free of pedestrians and bicyclists.” — Anthony Townsend, Reprogramming Mobility, 2014.
In the 1920s, the automobile forced cities to adapt and then, in the US, the Interstate Highway System caused another major change, beginning in the 1950s. Now tech is changing mobility again. Of course, I hear you say. Uber is just 7 years old. And Lyft is only 4 years old. And we know home values and rents in Brooklyn, Jersey City and Oakland are changing because car ownership and transit are not the only game in town. But what if most of the mobility change is still ahead of us?
Let’s start with self-driving cars. Google is synonymous with the idea and now more Google cars are finding their way into more US cities like Austin and Phoenix (yes, the same Austin that is in a kerfuffle with Uber and Lyft. More on that later). But Google is far from alone now. Last year, Uber hired 40 people from Carnegie Mellon, one of the leading university robot research groups. The Uber Car has been spotted in Pittsburgh. This year, GM acquired Cruise, a 3-year-old startup that adds autonomous capabilities to existing vehicles. GM also invested in Lyft and then announced that it would be deploying self-driving taxis within a year, based on EVs.
And then there are startups. Auro, like Cruise, made it’s way through YC. Optimus Ride, has gathered together a deeply experienced team from MIT. At least one of the former Stanford self-driving team is building Zoox, which recently received a permit to test robot taxis. And George Hotz made news when he revealed his plan to train cars to drive themselves. His firm recently received funding round from a16z.
But one car company might already be far ahead. While the focus has been on batteries, charging infrastructure and Model 3 pre-orders, Tesla has now driven more autonomous miles than any firm. This already enables the firm to estimate that its Autopilot reduces the probability of having an accident by 50%.
And the company that is usually associated with car safety? They’re not not sitting around waiting for others to figure out how to avoid accidents. Volvo will deploy production models in Sweden that will be capable of complete autonomy too. In case you forgot, Volvo is now owned by Chinese automaker, Geely. Geely is not the only Chinese firm actively pursuing self driving cars.
Using production cars and working with owners to acquire data and identify how and where Autopilot is failing gives Tesla a big advantage. It can benchmark performance at a large scale and quickly push updates into production. Maybe this is why Alphabet will now pay you to drive their cars. Learning (for developers and algorithms) may be an important reason why self-driving tech is going to more quickly make its way into production. Look out for “robot driving instructor” in LinkedIn profiles.
It’s not just cars that are driving themselves. Just as there are retrofits for cars, so we should soon expect to see self-driving trucks. Otto was just announced to do just this. The team includes people from many of the companies we’ve already mentioned, including Tesla, Alphabet and Cruise. At the same time, much smaller vehicles are setting out on delivery routes from teams like Starship (former Skype team) and Dispatch. They look like large radio control cars, but they are not intended to generate any excitement. They’re meant to move slowly along sidewalks without bothering humans. They’re expected to significantly drive down last-mile delivery costs. Look out for the next gen of pet doors.
Speaking of small robots, you’d be forgiven for confusing them with toys. Hoverboards were the hottest holiday gift in 2015 but the underlying trends haven’t changed. The batteries, motors, sensors, processors and algorithms behind everything from electric bikes and scooters to Onewheels and Boosted Boards continue to get better and cheaper. And while some are designed to go anywhere, protected bike lanes are growing rapidly to increase their appeal. As more big vehicles remove human error, roads will feel safer too.
There is another class of mobility that is easy to overlook. Unlike hoverboards, they actually do move through the air. There has been rapid expansion of flying robots or drones for commercial and consumer use, usually focused on collecting data using cameras or other sensors. But logistics firms like DHL and Amazon are publicly showing off their early efforts to use drone tech for deliveries. Flexport offers some context for the economics of drone deliveries.
And there is one more thing. Someone keeps dropping new mobility concepts on the market. The first was Hyperloop, which is now being eagerly pursued by more than one company. But Elon Musk also hinted at an interest in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) electric jets. Interestingly, some of the fixed-wing delivery drone concepts already employ VTOL. We can’t blame Anthony for missing these two — Musk adds an X factor to any industry. But there are considerations beyond the massive tech advancements.
It’s too easy to insist that regulators will hold us back. For example, many people took to Twitter to vent about the battle between Austin, Uber and Lyft. We prefer the more nuanced backgrounder on what divides them and how the differences might be reconciled in this instance. The “government stops progress” reaction hides a bigger truth. From autonomous car testing in Nevada to FAA processes to approve commercial drone projects, regulators are engaging to understand the possibilities. Also the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005 originally brought attention and resources to the space!
If Uber and Lyft versus taxi and limo firms looked like an interesting battle, this next round is going to be much, much, much bigger. It’s not just that much larger firms are involved now. Self-driving may not mean driverless for a while, but drivers are already remote in some applications. Ultimately a large number of driving jobs will disappear along with the people that support them in sectors like hospitality and mobile entertainment. And then there are other interest groups from real estate to insurance firms, that will see their fortunes shift.