sharon: Hey team. Welcome to our third installment of the Mobility Report Water Cooler, a weekly forum for insightful essays, blog posts, reports, tweets and random musings about the future of transportation.
sharon: So, this week we're going to be talking about a piece that ran in Recode last week.
It's another commentary from the growing crowd of nay-sayers and disbelievers who are desperate to throw cold water on anyone who is excited about self-driving cars. Does my analysis maybe give away too much about what I think about the piece?
Maybe one of you could offer a more neutral summary.
sahmed: I sense some exasperation.
He's basically saying that self-driving cars are going to take a lot longer than the general populace thinks because,
1) they're grouped with EV's, and people don't like EV's and,
2) the technology's not remotely there today.
Am I forgetting anything @katieburke ?
katieburke: Sounds about right to me.
I wouldn't say I completely agree with the reasoning, but I do think there is merit to rethinking the fast timelines to deployment.
sharon: I want to go back and dig into the Newspapers.com archives to see how many people wrote columns in the 1960s saying, "Hey guys! Chill out! We'll never see a man walk on the moon. It's too dangerous. And we all know the moon is made of cheese!"
Not saying there aren't legitimate concerns about safety with self-driving cars. But it seems like there is a group of people who think that the arrival of self-driving cars will mean ALL cars will be self driving.
sahmed: Right, which discounts the fact that lots of companies are eyeing limited, controlled implementation for, like, airport shuttles or college campuses. At which point you're just debating semantics over where self-driving cars have 'arrived' or not.
katieburke: I have had someone say to me at a conference that he did the calculations on what it would take to replace every car on the road with a Tesla. According to him it was three years ... which seems a tad flawed.
sahmed: Still, I'll take a Tesla if he's offering.
sharon: Yeah, me too.
sahmed: I spoke to this researcher in California who said he expects self-driving cars to follow a similar path as smart phones: Slow growth and then a hockey stick turn upwards.
sharon: Yeah, that's the ideal growth curve. People seem to forget how much r&d time goes into a successful product before it becomes a huge hit.
So let's get into the author's first concern: Electrification of cars. I'm not sure I understand his point. He says that because the demand for electric cars is expected to stay low, so will demand for self-driving cars.
sahmed: The argument relies on autonomy being only relevant to EV's... but it doesn't have to be?
sharon: Well, self-driving cars need a lot of battery power. So electric cars make sense from that standpoint. It's part of why Waymo partnered with FCA on the hybrid minivan, not the regular Pacifica.
They needed the battery power.
sahmed: Ahh, I see.
katieburke: Exactly, but I agree that doesn't necessarily translate to AV demand.
sharon: I think the big difference in demand for electric and demand for self-driving will come down to this: Electric cars don't offer too much more to the driver than a gas-powered car. Nothing fundamentally changes when you go from an ICE engine to a hybrid or electric car.
But self-driving cars are a whole new thing. They will free up so much time, lower stress and cut down on accidents. So if self-driving cars need big batteries, I think you'll see demand for self-driving cars driving up demand for EVs. Does that make sense?
sahmed: I can see that happening — or carmakers loading on more discreet features to gasoline cars that resemble an autonomous experience.
katieburke: And between regulations and general advances in powertrain technology, it just seems cars will naturally move toward electrification regardless of autonomous capability.
sahmed: It also doesn't take into account fleets of AV's used in ride-hailing. Who cares if they're being picked up in an EV or a gasoline car?
katieburke: Yeah I think once the cars are driving themselves, people won't care as much about what's fueling them, especially if they aren't owning them.
sahmed: Honestly it was a pretty risky argument to start off on, I almost discounted the whole essay cause it seemed like he was finding a strawman in EV's to discredit autonomous tech.
sharon: So what do you guys think about the author's point about safety? He cites the fact that some Tesla engineers left the Autopilot program over safety concerns as evidence that the technology won't be ready for some time.
katieburke: That's a point I've been hearing a lot lately.
There seems to be a general concern that the newer companies entering this industry now don't fully grasp the risks that come with automotive products.
sharon: I think that's a valid concern, actually. But I don't think it's a fatal flaw.
katieburke: Not at all, if anything, another reason for more collaboration.
sahmed: I do wonder what the effect of accidents or fatalities will be though on public perception.
sharon: I think it also shows a lack of understanding about what's going on at Tesla. They should not have marketed their adaptive cruise control and lane keeping technology as Autopilot. That's not what it is.
katieburke: Right, and a misunderstanding of how people use that kind of technology. Not sure if this is true for everyone, but I hear "autopilot" and it sounds like something that allows me to turn my brain off.
sahmed: Yeah, absolutely.
sharon: Yeah. OK, so maybe now I kind of see a point that this column could have made but didn't — if companies keep talking about this stuff as if it's already here and ready to drive you to work, then the companies who are marketing their tech that way are doing a disservice to the promise of self-driving cars.
sahmed: The Tesla incident seemed to cause a correction in the way a lot of carmakers talk about this stuff though. I noticed Nissan has been pretty cautious when marketing the new Nissan Leaf's autonomous features.
sharon: How so?
sahmed: When I did a ride-and-drive in it, the marketing guys kept repeating and pointing out how its not Level 3, you always have to be engaged, and how they didn't want any of the naming to be interpreted as a less engaged driving experience. So they never said 'Tesla' but it was pretty clear what they were tip-toeing around.
sharon: Interesting. That seems prudent.
katieburke: Yeah, I think there's a lot less harm — if any — in being overly cautious with that type of wording. If anything, automakers may lose out on the extra few thousand dollars per vehicle because people won't know to buy the tech package.
sahmed: I would like to see research on how consumers interpret these names though. I feel like regular people will throw around the term 'self-driving' pretty loosely regardless.
katieburke: That would be interesting. I feel like "assist" has been appearing more in these systems' names.
sharon: Assist is a good term for it. I personally love the driver's assist technologies I've tested. They make long commutes so much mentally easier.
katieburke: I’m still too nervous using them and just feel like I'm monitoring it the whole time.
sharon: I wrote this little thing up recently about a Volvo saving my ass.
sahmed: "City Safety with Steering Support" is a pretty direct naming scheme.
katieburke: Maybe a bit of a mouthful though.
sharon: Yeah, it's certainly not a sexy name.
sahmed: The author makes allowances for safety features at the end of the essay, which I think is kind of a cop-out. Once a lot of these safety features are enabled, you've got pretty effective self-driving systems for a lot of situations, even if it may not be fully autonomous.
katieburke: Yeah, I do think it is a jump from assistance technologies, like lane-keeping and emergency braking, and hands-free/mind-free type systems, and I think that's where most of the issues are.
sharon: Yeah. As you both can probably already tell, my eyeballs hurt from all the eye rolling I end up doing reading these nay-sayer columns. So many of them demonstrate such a basic lack of understanding of what's out there, what's coming, and what it's like to drive on the real roads using this tech.
katieburke: Haha yeah, I forget that most people don't spend 40+ hours a week talking about this stuff
sharon: So why do these people keep getting airtime? Argh.
katieburke: ~ clicks ~
sharon: You're smart.
sahmed: It's fun to be the contrarian. Sometimes.
sharon: Is it though? I always feel like contrarians are cranky people.
"Get off my lawn with your self-driving car dreams!"
katieburke: Haha, and it's also a little worrying that these could influence the thinking/opinion of other people trying to learn about the space. Maybe not on a huge scale, but it certainly doesn't help.
sharon: So, anything else worth talking about in the piece?
sahmed: I thought he brings up some intriguing points about automotive architecture. Like whether the auto industry as it currently is fixed is capable of developing robust enough tech.
sharon: Yeah, he says that he believes the auto industry is overdue to reinvent the way cars are designed. He's probably right.
But it's such a risky business to develop a new car platform. It's not like any other consumer product; it costs billions to develop new models. That's a lot of money to lose if the public hates your new bubble car.
katieburke: And if one part is faulty, it could be a major disaster.
sahmed: Right, and if it doesn't obey thousands of regulatory standards you can't even drive it in the real world... which is why so many tech companies quit on their big dreams of reinventing the car
katieburke: Not to beat a dead horse here, but again, collaboration could be a wonderful thing for this.
sharon: Yup. That's one way to spread the risk — go in with multiple partners.
katieburke: And you can take advantage of so many individual areas of expertise. With all the moving parts and new technology that will be in these cars, you want people who know what they're doing.
sahmed: Yeah, I think the biggest problem with handicapping self-driving cars is there's too many unknown unknowns.
katieburke: Which also seems to be another reason for the rise of the naysayers — they can have the satisfaction of saying, "I told you so," if any of these unknowns blows up.
sharon: Good point, @katieburke. And who doesn't love to be right?
katieburke: It does feel nice to hit the mark every once in a while.
sahmed: Well I couldn't find any old articles on people not believing we'd ever land on the moon. There is some great stuff out there about modern-day flat-earthers though.
katieburke: I mean, have you ever seen the earth curve?
sharon: Well, I think that's about all the time I have today to stay annoyed at Luddites and curmudgeons. How about you guys?
But I should point out this article...
katieburke: Ha, maybe we've just all watched one too many sci-fi movies. But agreed, can't let the Luddites bring us down.
sharon: All right then. This has been fun.
sahmed: Yep, great chatting. Later!
katieburke: Until next time!