Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment Technology The Korner

Google’s Potential End Game – Transport and Organize the World’s People, Not Just Information

The Year 2040 – Somewhere in Silicon Valley #

It’s 8:07 am and my next-door neighbor, cheapskate Charlie, has been waiting outside his door for a few minutes for his ride, which is guaranteed to be at his house within a 10 minute window. He looks at his garage and is reminded that he will soon be renting it as storage space to his neighbor, Rich.

As the electric Gee-Auto arrives, Charlie notes that another neighbor, tightwad Tom, is joining him today and on their journey, they will pick up parsimonious Paula. Despite sharing a vehicle with two to three people each day, the efficiency of a packet network of autonomous vehicles has reduced his average commute time from 30 minutes to 23 minutes, eliminated the need for auto insurance, and given Charlie the opportunity to play his virtual piano on his morning commute, instead of focusing on the car in front of him.

Parsimonious Paula likes the Gee-Mobile service as she no longer has to rely on the discontinued and obsolete county transit. Her monthly subscription to the Gee-Mobile service is comparable to what she used to pay for a monthly transit pass and she doesn’t have to walk half-a-mile in the rain to catch a bus.  It would make bringing groceries home easier, but Gee-Autos have been delivering goods directly to homes for decades.

It’s 8:15 am and across the street, just like every workday, a Gee-Auto meets my spendthrift neighbor, Rich, at his doorstep exactly as he opens his front door. He hops in the Gee-Auto and waiting for him is a morning latte, a freshly toasted bagel, along with morning news, entertainment and education tuned especially for his viewing, listening and olfactory pleasure.

The garage is no longer needed for car storage when one has a vehicle-on-demand service.
The garage is no longer needed for car storage when one has a vehicle-on-demand service.

Rich has a tinge of disappointment that his 15 minute commute (which used to be 30 minutes before the arrival of self-driving, always-connected vehicles) couldn’t be just a little longer, as he really enjoys this daily ritual of breakfast and relaxation in a moving pod. That disappointment is soon forgotten, as he realizes today is the day when a contractor and his team of droids will begin the conversion of his garage into a tricked-out, man-cave.

Along the way, the Gee-Auto’s speed is constantly and automatically adjusted to traffic conditions. The queuing algorithms are working especially well these days and intersections that were formerly regulated by stoplights are now sophisticated roundabouts and it will be a non-stop trip for Rich. There is one stop for the Gee-Auto transporting Charlie and that is to drop off Paula at her banana stand.

Like most days, Rich and Charlie arrive within a few minutes of each other at the Acme Anvil Company (Charlie is the CFO and Rich is in marketing). They wave adieu to Tom, who works about a half-mile away, and go about their day. In the meantime, the Gee-Auto that had transported Rich to work slips into the median, where an embedded wireless charging pod rapidly recharges the hybrid super capacitor-graphene battery system, before receiving its next assignment to pick up groceries for delivery to another Gee-Mobile subscriber.

[Note: The above scenario of an automated people mover seems ridiculous, but it wasn’t too long ago that the idea of talking to one’s phone to get directions would be absolute lunacy. The idea of an on-demand transit system providing door-to-door transport goes back to at least the mid-1970s, as the first major expansion for Silicon Valley’s public transit system was such a service, Dial-a-ride (dial-a-ride used the old school telephone to beckon a mini-bus directly to one’s residence). Dial-a-ride didn’t scale, however, as the staffing and equipment costs were greater than the traditional public transit approach of aggregating people at transit stops.]

Technology to Make the Science Fiction, Fact

Although fictional, the above story isn’t science fiction, as the technology now exists to make the above scenario real. Many companies could potentially implement such a people transport system, including car manufacturers, auto-rental and logistic companies, but it is likely to be outsiders (Amazon, Walmart, Google, etc.) that disrupt this multi-trillion dollar industry.

The focus of this article is Google and how the elements it already has in place could be stitched together to create an end-to-end, subscription (as well as Pay Per Ride) people transport service that generates tens of billions of new revenue, while building upon its existing businesses.

One of the oft-cited barriers to the autonomous car is the question of who is liable in the case of an accident (e.g., the manufacturer, the driver, etc.)? A subscription model doesn’t remove the liability factor, but by taking a holistic view of the driving experience and owning the “last mile” transport method, Google could greatly reduce its exposure.

Like its cloud services, Google would have complete control over the design (ensure no single points of failure), the maintenance (no mechanical error by ensuring equipment is always up-to-date) and the software (e.g. secure it from hacking).

Further, removing the constraint of having to accommodate a driver would allow for a rethinking of a vehicle’s design (see the above video). There is no need for a steering wheel, which could change the form factor, while improving the safety of the passenger who occupies the driver seat.

The need for windows goes away and could be replaced with electronic screens, such that one could choose the environment that he wants to see (think advertising space for Google). Without windows, presumably the vehicle’s body could be made stronger (e.g. more cross-members where the windows would have been). Additionally, the seats could be placed backward as there is no longer a need to face forward.

With a 5% market share, the annual revenues could exceed $32B.

Last week’s announcement that they have designed their own prototype car is consistent with other initiatives, like Google Fiber, where they want to control the entire experience. A custom design also reduces vehicle cost by eliminating overhead that an individual consumer normally pays when she buys a car from a dealer (which passes on the sales, marketing, engineering and other overhead costs of the manufacturer, along with the dealer costs, etc.).

Google, along with other entities, have a number of initiatives that set the stage for a subscription-based, autonomous transport system, including:

  • Google has proven it can create an autonomous vehicle that can drive hundreds of thousands of miles without an accident.
  • Google’s Waze application, coupled with their Google Maps already provides a real-time view of traffic allowing drivers to select the best route. Having a vehicle automatically make the decisions as to the best route is the next step (and safer). The more vehicles that are directed in this manner, the better, in terms of route optimization (i.e. traffic reduction); the Gee-Auto and their control become more and more like the Internet, as the underlying signaling improves the throughput of the overall transportation network.
  • Google, as well as Amazon and others, are investing heavily in on-demand delivery of goods. This effort is a great testing ground to understand the best routing of vehicles. As Google is wont to do, they are also building the associated apps and signaling technology via the broadband network to ensure orders are relayed through the delivery chain. If Google can prove this model with a driver, then eliminating the driver via an autonomous car makes the model work that much better.
  • The idea of a subscription service for a car rental isn’t new, as evidenced by the rise of ZipCar in urban areas. The autonomous car would allow this concept to spread into suburban areas, as the cars would automatically appear at the subscriber’s house [Added 12/23/14 – the idea of an on-demand, shared, last-mile car service may become reality in 2015, as Singapore is looking to open up one of its neighborhoods to such an experiment].
  • Relay Rides, Uber and Lyft provide models for the electronic dispatch of vehicles – albeit with human drivers – using a Smartphone or tablet. It isn’t a stretch to envision the elimination of the driver. It is important to note that Google Ventures is already an investor in Relay Rides and Uber [Note, since this article was published, Uber has suggested that the elimination of the driver could be part of their long-term plans – one industry executive even predicted that Uber might purchase a auto manufacturer, so that they could control the experience and have cars that last a million miles].
  • The concept of a relatively low-cost ($24k), electronically controlled electric pod car is close to reality with the soon to be released vehicle from LIT Motors; a small San Francisco start-up that promises to disrupt the auto industry with its Silicon Valley business model.
  • Building a car with screens, instead of windows, provides Google with an opportunity for more “ad-space”. This is ad-space that is not only location-aware, but location-directed (e.g. sensing the rider might be hungry for a certain food item, it would be easy to automatically reroute to one’s favorite restaurant and provide incentives for stopping at said restaurant).
  • A Google Fiber/Wireless backbone, although not necessary, could be tuned to off-load signaling information emanating from the vehicles peer-to-peer communications systems. These two networks (P2P vehicle and the Fiber backbone) could become an integrated central nervous system for the network of vehicles. [Added 6/6/2014] Google’s request for a Statutory Temporary Authority from the FCC for the nationwide testing of millimeter frequencies (77 GHz) looks to be part of an effort to detect objects around a car. [Added 8/25/2014] Further, the conversation on Vehicle to Vehicle communications continues with the NHSTA’s release of it’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Tens of Billions of New Revenue – It Moves the Needle

A picture of an electric vehicle from LIT Motors at CES 2014.
A picture of a drive-by-wire, electric vehicle from LIT Motors at CES 2014.

Why would Google ever want to jump into such a seemingly tangential business model of being a Subscription Vehicle on Demand service provider? Simply, a project of this sort could move their revenue needle, produce great margins and augment their advertising business. As importantly, the notion of organizing the world’s atoms is akin to its initial mission of organizing the world’s information.

For simple modeling purposes, let’s assume the IRS reimbursement rate of 55.5 cents per mile (gas, maintenance, amortized car payments, etc.) and that the average person drives 10k miles per year (AAA estimates 59.5 to 97.5 cents per mile for 10k miles/year for a small to large sedan, respectively). That would mean $5,550 a year in transport costs per car or approximately $460 per month.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine a 3 tier subscription offering, similar to what Google is doing with their broadband offering to meet the needs of the various customer profiles:

  • The Parsimonious Paula Offer$125/month – Gee-Auto guaranteed within 10 minutes – have to share with others, advertisements, plus goods delivery within 8 hours  – 500 miles per month (overages apply).
  • The Mainstream Mary Offer$300/month – Gee-Auto guaranteed within 5 minutes, sometimes have to share depending upon demand, limited advertisements, plus goods delivery within 4 hours – 1,000 miles/month limit (overages apply).
  • The Regal Rich Offer$1,000/month – Gee-Auto is ready when the person opens their door, no sharing with others and no advertisements, plus goods delivery within 1 hour – Unlimited distance per month

Further, assume take rates of 10% for the Regal Rich offer, 40% for the Parsimonious Paula offer and 50% for the Mainstream Mary offer, the weighted average would be $300 per month per subscriber (33% less than the assumed conservative average of $460/month in transportation costs).

Assuming a 5% market share of today’s 18+ population, this would mean approximately 9 million subscribers or about $2.7B monthly or > $32B annual business, not counting any uplift to existing businesses (e.g. advertising, broadband, etc.), on-demand business (taxi-replacement business) or fleet/logistic replacement.

Because of the sharing nature of the business, Google’s costs would be lower than the IRS reimbursement rate of 55 cents/mile. Even the most expensive option in the above scenario would be shared (e.g. once a Gee-Auto pod drops off one person, it could pick up another nearby person). Assuming a sharing ratio of 1/3 (one Gee-Auto for every 3 people [8/19/2014 update – When I wrote this, the 1/3 ratio was a gut-feel guess. As it turns out, some MIT scientists using  mathematical algorithms and real-data from  Singapore determined that a 1/3 ratio is about right as summarized here about their white paper]), the costs, based on the IRS figures would be $153/subscriber/month (1/3 of the single driver’s cost of $460) or almost 50% gross margin ($153 costs versus $300 in revenue/subscriber); not a bad business and with $30B+ in revenue, a business that is approximately 50% of Google’s current business.

Granted, there would be significant capital costs to such an endeavor, but, because electronics and software are the significant cost components associated with the above scenario, cost reductions would more closely follow Moore’s Law than the traditional cost for building automobiles. There are also costs associated with upgrading roads, etc. that would need to be factored in as part of a capital build. Still, by building this on a city-by-city basis over time, much like Google Fiber, the capital costs would drop with each deployment. Even at $20k per vehicle, the capital costs to create 3 million vehicles would be $60B; not insignificant, but within the realm of possibility given current costs for low-end electric cars.

There are several upsides, both the aforementioned uplift to their existing businesses, as well as opportunities to reduce expenses relative to traditional transportation systems, as well as find new revenues:

  • Lower Insurance Costs: Google would probably self-insure, given the sheer volume of business, as well as the confidence they would have in their technology and the indemnification clauses their attorneys would include in their subscription agreements. Self insuring would remove the costs of the insurance company middleman. Additionally, given the potential improvements in safety from autonomous vehicles (Google suggests that human error causes 90% of the 1.2 million vehicle deaths each year), the effective cost of insurance would be lower than the costs for insuring human-driven autos.
  • Lower Operational Costs: Being all-electric, the operational costs from maintenance and fuel would be less than traditional hydrocarbon vehicles. Additionally, it wouldn’t be a stretch for Google to create a network of its own power stations (which, as alluded to in the above story, could be in medians and other non-usable areas).
  • Local Subsidies: At $125 per month, the Parsimonious Paula tier is more than 10% cheaper than the existing Silicon Valley public transportation option (a monthly pass on Silicon Valley’s VTA is $140). Given that public transit authorities operate bus systems at a loss, it might be cheaper for a transit authority to pay Google on a variable cost basis and retire the bus systems (particularly in suburban areas). Google probably would run the transit system without subsidies, as the political benefits of saving the local taxpayers money would outweigh the marginal revenue.

Policy Implications at the Local Level  – From First Mover Advantage to Must-Have

A picture of a Google truck at a customer install. Note, the lawn sign promoting the Google Fiber project.
Image courtesy of Google

One of the brilliant insights from the Google Fiber management team is its understanding of the importance of speed; not just speed in broadband access, but speed to market. The longer it takes to deploy Google Fiber, the higher the costs of make-ready and the more opportunity competitors have to thwart its efforts. As such, one of the most important factors in determining where they deploy Google Fiber is the willingness of local cities and agencies to work with them to smooth out the barriers to deployment (e.g. obtaining permits, rights-of-way, etc.).

The Google Fiber project has forged the sort of local relations that would be necessary to implement such a revolutionary approach to transportation. A project of this scale would require working with local government to support infrastructure improvements, such as distributed power charging stations (or some equivalent, such as solar roadways), improvements in traffic light signaling (making it more dynamic, based on real-time traffic demands or [link added 8/17/14] eliminating it as seen in this video) and other road improvements (e.g. roundabouts).

It’s not too difficult to imagine Google pursuing a nationwide competition like it did when it introduced the Google Fiber concept. If Google were to target a community with a population of 100,000 adults and assuming a 5% subscription rate, with a 1/3 ratio of vehicle per subscriber, they would be looking at 1,700 vehicles and assuming a near-term cost of $100k per vehicle, this would be a $170M investment; an amount that is pricey, but would provide a good field test and refine the commercial project, just like Kansas City did for Google Fiber (this is in the realm of possibility, as Google recently announced that they will be building 100 prototype vehicles for testing purposes).

Like the Google Fiber project, which received over 1,000 applications from communities of all sizes, a Gee-Auto contest would grab the attention of forward-looking cities and Google would probably have its choice of cities to pilot such a project. By staying on a city or regional basis, Google might be able to avoid the regulatory reach of some federal and state agencies. As they cross beyond county or state lines, however, the regulatory environment would become more complicated.

Assuming the above tack where Google starts local, policy makers would have many things to ponder over such an application including:

  • How to create an open network, such that vehicles from multiple operators can traverse the same roadway and still communicate in such a way that all operate in a seamless fashion, regardless of the underlying transport technology?[added 08/03/18 – RideOS seems to have the type of transportation orchestration platform envisioned in this bullet and is starting to get traction.]
  • Who controls the signaling system and should that entity be a private operator (e.g. Google), a quasi-private entity or a municipal entity?
  • Should the entity that controls the signaling system be able to prioritize traffic, based on subscription tier, (e.g. public safety vehicles would still get first priority), etc.?
  • How to charge operators for the use of the roadways (e.g. pay per mile) and pay for ongoing infrastructure upgrades as well as upgrades that such a transportation system would entail?
  • What are the privacy implications of knowing a person’s movement at such a micro-level?

A shared vehicle society has long-term implications for local planning officials and could change how they plan for parking, design roads and the economic implications of the hollowing out of the traditional automobile trade.

  1. The Gee-Mobile service could potentially reduce the number of parking spots at a given building. Garages in single family residences might no longer be necessary in the autonomous auto world. At night or other times of slack demand, the Gee-Auto would park itself in unoccupied locations, which wouldn’t have to be near a residence. Further, because a Gee-Auto is dynamically assigned, parking lots could be structured to eliminate the space between cars (Last-In, First-Out). Additionally, parking lots and charging stations could be located in what are currently unusable spaces (e.g. in a median).
  2. The roads could be optimized for the autonomous vehicle. For instance, because it would be possible to create a narrower vehicle (LIT Motors, as an example), as well as pack the vehicles closer together, it might be possible to effectively create, say 3 lanes where there are two. These high density lanes could dispense with painted lines, as electronics would keep the autonomous vehicles in place. These virtual lanes would only be for the higher speed, autonomous traffic and not traditional motorists [Added 8/25/2014 – similarly the number of lanes for a given direction could be dynamically assigned, depending upon time of day – e.g. a 4 lane road might use 3 lanes for one direction in the morning and change the direction of those lanes when the traffic pattern changes in the afternoon).
  3. The local economic impact of the reduction of traditional automobiles will be huge. Of course, gasoline taxes to pay for infrastructure go away (an issue with electric cars that need to be addressed, regardless). The bigger impact might be on the restructuring of local economies. From the local auto shop to the gas station to the car dealer to the insurance agent, the traditional automobile has a huge economic impact on a community and the lost revenue would have to be made up with new opportunities from existing and new employers.

One aspect that a local economic agency could tout when trying to get those new jobs is the superior quality of life (e.g. not having to fight traffic, lower cost of transport, freedom for senior citizens and those with physical disabilities to leave their domicile without depending upon others, etc.) Like with gigabit broadband there will be a first-mover advantage for those communities that successfully implement an autonomous vehicle network. Eventually, however, being a “Smart Transport Community” will become a must-have.

The Big Question

Although all the technological elements of the so-called Gee-Mobile service exist today and the pricing is even within striking range, the bigger barriers will probably be business model and regulatory. It looks like there is a path to a business model (particularly as autonomous vehicle costs fall). Google has proven that it can work with local governments with its Google Fiber initiative, which would be helpful in getting past regulatory concerns. The biggest question in the above story is what jobs will cheapskate Charlie, parsimonious Paula, tightwad Tom and regal Rich will be driven to in 2040?

Meanwhile – Back in the Year 2040

It’s 8:30 a.m. and, at the same time Rich and Charlie arrive at their office, I am sitting down to work from home in a virtual environment via my 10 terabit connection. Just as I am about to start, I am pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a Gee-Air, the flying drone that whisked my 113 year old mother from her engagement residence (the term retirement home was retired from the vernacular decades before), located some 60 miles away. She had decided to surprise me with freshly made cinnamon rolls for breakfast. But that’s a story for another time.

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is Marketing Director for the Broadband Forum. The mission of this 25+-year-old non-profit “is to unlock the potential for new markets and profitable revenue growth by leveraging new technologies and standards in the home, intelligent small business, and multi-user infrastructure of the broadband network.”

He is also co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on the rural broadband ecosystem, autonomous vehicles, and electric aviation. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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84 replies on “Google’s Potential End Game – Transport and Organize the World’s People, Not Just Information”

I found following excellent whitepaper after publication of the above. Like what I imply in my opening story, it suggests the 2040s to 2050s is when the autonomous car becomes mainstream. Although this whitepaper discusses the idea of car sharing services, it doesn’t present a subscription type service, as suggested above.

This seems to be an update/new report to what was referenced above, where it was suggested that autonomous cars would be mainstream by the 2040s or 2050s

I need to do a more careful read of this report by the Victoria Transport Planning Institute, but they suggest a slower uptake to autonomous vehicles than many suggest; They conclude that the autonomous car will be expensive novelties in the 2020s and 2030s and won’t be until the 2040s and 2050s until they are affordable for middle income families and beyond that for lower income families.

They point to the median life of a car (they estimate as 20 years), as an indicator that it will take decades for today’s cars to be replaced with autonmous cars. They also point to other technologies and the length of time it took for their implementation. other car developments.

They raise good counter-points to the enthusiasm surrounding autonomous cars. Still, there are factors that are difficult to quantify, such as the rapid development of LiDAR and associated cost-reduction. If this meets the sort of projections that Quanergy is projecting for its technology, then it could become a mandatory safety feature sooner, rather than later at a marginal cost and without need for the costly subscription services that are suggested in the report.

Additionally, although the report does bring up the important point about seemingly mundane, but important things like cleaning costs of a shared taxi service, it doesn’t seem to contemplate a subscription service as described above. Additionally, it is difficult to quantify unthought of solutions that entrepreneurs will creat to solve new challenges (such as the cleaning issue).

A California State Senator is proposing better freeway lanes for high-speed transit along California’s main north-south freeways for an autobahn, like experience. This would be an alternative to California’s High-Speed Rail.

This is wrapped up in Senate Bill 319.

It probably has little chance of passing, as he is a Republican in a Democrat-controlled state.

And here is another great resource/blog post from the Institute of Traffic Engineers, that I found after publication. This post echoes the above, as well as points out the improvement in safety and quality of life for closing off dense city cores to human drivers.

He also suggests, and I agree, that the autonomous vehicle could be a larger disruption than the Internet:

“Following significant further investigation of the potential impacts of the deployment of autonomous vehicles it appears that the overall impact on society could be even greater than that of the internet.”

It also points out that city planners need to closely examine large investments in fixed rail infrastructure, particularly in lightly-travelled areas.

“And LRT? Again the principle of high density corridors ensures the continuing need for LRT, but the lower-ridership peripheral routes may need review as to their continued viability. What is of concern to the fiscally minded, is whether the operational, business and revenue models for proposed LRT lines or extensions are sufficiently robust for their plans and designs to continue being designed from within the existing paradigm. When the large capital costs of LRT construction is taken into account, and the operational subsidy that most service require, an autonomous taxi alternative, funded by the private sector, may begin to look a very attractive alternative.”

Of course, Google could extend this product into the digital health domain, as it would be easy to include weight sensors in the seats or blood pressure/pulse monitoring. It’s not hard to imagine the Google service tracking one’s weight and making dietary recommendations and maybe even encouraging exercise by dropping one off a distance from his destination to force exercise.

Also, it will be interesting to see how much push back there is by the public regarding the use of millimeter wave frequencies as methods of detecting objects (many of which will be of the living type, such as humans, pets, etc.).

And in case I ever tell the rest of the story about using a 3rd dimension for transport, here is a start-up (founded by the guy who invented the GorillaPod and sold Makani to Google) that is working with NASA on some interesting drones that could provide that personal flying transport that we have been dreaming about for decades and decades.

Here is a link from Reuters regarding the status of the autonomous car. It echos the above story and suggests that the tech for the autonomous vehicle is here today, but it is the regulation that needs to catch up.

A couple things stand out in this article; how tech and telecom can be the beneficiaries of this boom and how the connected car is reality. To quote, “The autonomous car is not science fiction, it’s real and it’s happening now. The technology is ready, it’s just a question of regulation at this point,” said Philippe Obry, head of research and development at AKKA.

This Cisco blog provides a different look at the business model with a return on investment of less than 1 to 6 years, depending upon the assumptions.

That article references a Morgan Stanley report that suggests, “autonomous cars can contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the US economy, with global savings estimated at more than $5.6 trillion.”

And Dan Fagnant suggests this ratio might be as many as 1/10 the number of cars. He has done extensive modeling for how the vehicles would travel and the optimum level of cars versus wait time versus vehicle miles traveled and a summary of his findings can be found here.

Another good summary of a conversation with him from the organization Givewell.

This is getting closer to what I envisioned in my story of what life would be like for my sons’ in the year 2040; almost there, but not quite.

Having said that, there are a couple things that standout, such as the virtual crosswalk that the vehicle creates when it sees a pedestrian who is about to cross the road (and the way the lights on the back indicate “slow” – of course, that wouldn’t be necessary, as an autonomous car would recognize that the vehicle in front is slowing).

The other thing that speaks to the advantage of autonomous vehicles is the swivel chairs, making it much easier for people to get in and out of a vehicle. This sort of flexibility in design could be a great benefit to people in wheel chairs.

I actually saw Mercedes Benz’ vision for the above car on the Las Vegas strip at CES last week. It generated the type of buzz that one would expect of a major celebrity

Luxe Valet is providing a human-powered version of the self-parking application. They use a mobile app tells the Luxe Valet where to meet. The Valet takes the car and drops the car off at a secure lot; Luxe Valet has deals with parking garages to use unused inventory and charge an average of $5/hour and no more than $15/day. Plus, for an extra $7.99, they will fill up your tank and for $40 will wash your car.

Here is a link to a well written and thought-provoking article from Michael Reber.

I have never been much of a science fiction buff, but it does seem like we are on the cusp of a science fiction future that will soon be our present.

In the brief story above, I imagined a world where the cars are connected to calendars so they know when and where to show up (like Michael Robinson’s Ambrogio concept). I also imagined some of the benefits, like the elimination of parking, garages and the relative reduction in commute time due to more efficient transport.

The part that escaped me (and continues to do so) when I wrote my story is the job part of the equation. And, was my premise that people will even need to be transported to a job correct? With broadband and virtual worlds, why will one even have to travel to work? What jobs will be necessary with so much automation?

So, I agree with you about the hope and worry. On one hand, technology will erase so much friction that we encounter in daily living and life will be easier and different. On the other hand, if people don’t have to work, what will they do? Will it be for unimaginable positive creative endeavors or will it be using technology as a force multiplier for evil acts?

History is replete with concerns about technological change destroying jobs (there is a book written in the late 1800s that predicted a future where automation eliminated jobs – can’t remember the name), when, in reality, new jobs/activities, that no one could have imagined, have always been created.

Of course, what’s that caveat about past performance is not indicative of future results……that’s what make the future interesting.

The announcement of Nest’s integration of Dropcam’s WiFi cams (both part of Google now), makes the idea that Google could automatically summon a car based on a person’s behavior a possibility (e.g. person picks up her purse and walks out the door). But, should we trust Google?

Another factor, not considered in the above analysis, is the pollution reduction benefit of an autonomous Taxi service. This DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study suggests that . “Autonomous taxis would deliver significant environmental and economic benefits: Lower greenhouse gas emissions on per-mile basis for driverless cars deployed as taxis.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 July 2015.

This excellent simulation software and the associated comprehensive report gives planners in Canberra, Australia, an opportunity to see how a fleet of Self-Driving-Vehicles could improve public transit for this relatively low-density, urban area of approximately 400k. Planners can adjust multiple variables to see the impact of SDC.

And it looks like it could have a significant impact in creating 24/7, on-demand transit that is much more cost-effective than existing bus and proposed light rail plans.

They have a table that summarizes the simulation versus various traffic loads. Assuming the same usage as they currently have for their public bus system with an autonomous on-demand transport system, a person would have to wait less than a minute for a car 96% of the time. Further, the costs would be almost 2/3 of the cost of public transit.

Urban planners everywhere should be looking at this work and adapting it to their communities.

The idea that garages, as posited in the above story, will become obsolete isn’t so far-fetched as reported in a recent San Jose Mercury article:

“Daimler CEO Zetsche sketched out a transformative idea: ‘You could for instance, think about a typical American neighborhood where you would avoid building 100 garages, getting more houses in, and having the cars being parked outside and come on demand,” he said. “That is a relatively simple task and could be accomplished certainly within the next five years. … It depends on the restrictions.'”

A big assumption in my original article is that people would be content “sharing” or “renting” mobility, as opposed to owning it. An excellent whitepaper from TU-Automotive suggests that Millennials won’t get stuck on ownership and will embrace ridesharing:

“But perhaps what really separates Millennials from their predecessors is their cognitive ability to keep separate the idea of owning something with that of having access to the capability which that thing represents. The most obvious example might be with music. For Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, recorded music isn’t really real unless it is in some tangible form, such as a CD, a cassette, or a vinyl LP……. Millennials don’t care about the object,they just want the capability.”

If Stefan Heck’s predictions are right and mobility can be provided for 8 cents/mile, then a lot of Baby Boomers will probably also get on board.

Excellent white paper with renderings that paint a vision of how the built-environment could improve with the rollout of autonomous vehicles. Some of the language even suggest parallels to broadband networks,

“It also seems likely that private AV-owners would have to pay some form of network access charge according to trips made, as they will be reliant on the wider system to carry them from A to B.”

ARK Invest estimates the market for shared autonomous vehicles (aka autonomous taxi services) could get become a $630B market:

Further, in the 6/23/16 Robotics Business Review webinar, Tasha Keeney of ARK suggests an autonomous car could be here in the next couple of years from a technology acceptance standpoint.

She doesn’t think regulatory will be the limiting factor, The question is who will be willing to take on the liability and believes that could be Google. She suggests safety issues could be addressed by having the car automatically take itself off the road. The use of multiple sensors will help determine problems before they occur.

ARK predicts 80% reduction in accidents due to autonomy.

Excellent article by Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, regarding two different scenarios of how the autonomous vehicles might impact the future. Key message is that government officials have to get on the wave or else we will all be crushed. She starts to address the question of how to deal with the destruction of jobs from automation – as she calls it, AV’s are the tip of the automation iceberg.

Here is a very interesting story and proposal for how autonomy, blockchain and IoT might be combined to transition to an autonomous future by as early as 2021 (PDF). What makes this as interesting as anything is the potential econcomic changes from the P2P way it is organized and even the micro-manufacturing of the “pods”.

A company that paints a picture of what I tried to convey in words is Next Future Transport. They envision electric and autonomous pods that dynamically form trains on wheels to increase throughput. The types of pods range from transport to commerce (e.g. imagine a Starbucks on wheels that connects to the pod you are riding in). One of their unique attributes is that they open up, while in transit, allow passengers to move between pods (e.g. pick up that coffee from the mobile Starbucks).

More evidence that autonomous shared fleets may be a successful business model is given by Ark Invest:

According to Ark Invest, “our research shows that auto sales will collapse over the next decade, eventually reaching equilibrium at roughly half of today’s levels.”

This could have significant impact on the built environment and auto-dependent businesses everywhere and is something that City Planners should be considering

ARK believes that autonomous cars could be priced at 35 cents per mile, roughly half of what drivers pay for personally owned cars today.

This University of Oregon report looks at how autonomous vehicles could impact a city’s budget, focusing on San Francisco.

I am surprised when they express concerns about how AVs could impact public transportation systems, they don’t suggest that private AVs could be part of a new transit system. That is, it might be cheaper to pay a subsidy to a private entity than continue with a public infrastructure.

Testing of autonomous grocery delivery –
we are already seeing the impact of grocery delivery services. Assuming autonomy reduces costs (elimination of the driver, smaller, purpose-built vehicles), the built-environment and the resulting communities could be in for some significant changes.

2040 may be here sooner than we think. Could start to see driverless vehicles on California roads in 2018, although there would be people monitoring the vehicles remotely (although this could mean a 1 for N versus 1 for 1 in traditional transport) and its only available to manufacturers; and the manufacturers can’t charge or sell the technology. Basically, they have to give rides for free. Still, it is happening much faster than when I first speculated in the above story:

Good tidbits regarding questions that cities need to ask as they look at policies surrounding autonomous vehicles.

Of course, it might be much easier to start from scratch, the way Babcock Ranch is doing in Florida. They are planning ahead by creating less parking and, the parking they are designing, will be easily converted to other things, such as parks. It looks like they could begin implementing the vision painted in the above story as early as the end of 2017.

The question of what jobs my kids will go to is still a big question, particularly with the threat of automation eliminating so many jobs. While some argue for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the event that there aren’t enough jobs for humans, this article warns about the perils of UBI. I am looking forward to the 2nd installment of his article and I agree that whatever the future is, we need to go back to the past and our activities need to include more local, civic and person-to-person involvement.

As implied in my story above, it is a conern of mine, as well as many others, about automation destroying jobs faster than either new ones are created and/or humans can adjust. Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been a panacea proposed by some.

The author of this piece suggests that “getting something for nothing” wouldn’t solve the real problem of fulfillment one receives by having a job well done and proposes instead a basic jobs program:

Love this list of 10 principles. The only fine point I would add is that it should be clear that public transport does not necessarily mean publicly-owned, which is probably obvious given the private ride and bike sharing companies that signed onto these principles. Again, it is probably a given that creation and a maintenance of a road/curb/sidewalk/signal infrastructure should the core of an ecosystem where multiple mobility solutions can develop and thrive.

and the principals

This study with chauffeurs simulating owned, driverless vehicles to a small group of 13 people in different cohorts (millennials, families and retirees) suggests an increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled through things like induced demand (e.g. taking trips because the “cost of travel is reduced), sending vehicles on errands and passenger-less roaming, instead of paying for parking. It is a small sample and having a driver that required scheduling didn’t fully simulate the driverless car future, so its difficult to predict exact behavior, but it does seem to point to the issues brought up by Robin Chase and others with the ownership model of driverless vehicles:

Ark Invest suggests that Remote Tele-Operator services, which could potentially include remote driving (in areas where things aren’t mapped out) to customer service (e.g. more what Waymo intends) could consume 5 cents out of their long-term estimate of 35 cents per mile. Overall, this could mean a long-term gain of $100B in U.S and $460B in worldwide revenues for telecom players (even with a 75% drop in the price of data), according to Ark Invest.

It’s not 2040, but today is the day, December 5th 2018, that Waymo’s service launches. OK, it still isn’t the full-service promised in the above story, but it has the skeleton of what is necessary. It may be that Waymo pulls the plug on this in 6 months (just as early grocery delivery services circa 2000 were crushed, only to re-emerge a decade and a half later). So, if this follows a similar path, then maybe 2033 is the real date for any significant market movement……

[…] Autonomous Vehicles – The industry may currently be in the so-called “deflated expectations”, just as the broadband ecosystem was with the demise of Webvan,, and others at the turn of the century. In the meantime, start-ups and established companies are working on solutions for the operational issues that will be required for autonomous driving to scale. Policy at the local, state and national will be critical to determining whether the future is shared autonomous or zombie cars; the so-called heaven or hell scenarios. In either scenario, there is likely going to be less demand for parking on a per passenger basis in 2037 as compared in 2019. […]

And a company that will soon be producing the “electric skateboard”, which places all the drive functions (e.g .motor, suspension, steering) in the wheel, making it easy to customize the platform for different vehicle types. With their partnership with Musashi Seimitsu Industry Co., they are posed to create a much more efficient electric vehicle.

It’s 2020 and Cruise/GM/Honda share their shared, autonomous, electric future – claim they will save the average San Francisco household $5,000 per year. If the average household spends $8,500 per year on a car, this means they would now pays about $3,500 per year or roughly $300 per month; exactly the same as the Mainstream Mary offer suggested in the above posting from 2014.

Another proof-point that we are moving towards the vision outlined in the above story, last-mile goods delivery vehicle maker NURO, just received exemptions (e.g. rear view windows not required, rear cameras can stay on all the time, windshield not needed) from the US DOT and NHSTA that allow it to deploy their autonomous vehicles in the public roadways. Presumably, this will reduce the cost of last-mile delivery services, as compared to services that require people to do the driving. Long-term, if it reduces the cost enough, it will be interesting to see the impact on the retail aspect of stores.

Are Driverless Vehicles Creating Jobs?

Good stats from Lauren Isaac. As Princeton’s Dr. Kornhauser points out, the opportunity is to displace all the drivers who are not getting paid for driving (e.g. all the car owners sitting behind the wheel, stuck in traffic). And to build on another Kornhauser analogy, it would be interesting to compare the number of jobs associated with elevators before and after the elevator operator was eliminated in the 1940s. My gut says that as automation reduced the operational costs of elevators it increased the market for buildings with elevators and that employment loss of operators was made up in gains in elevator production and associated maintenance.

Israel is always innovative. Their Autonomous Vehicle Policy Framework is worth a look, particularly on page 17 where they see AVs as helping to improve their lacek of good public transit services. This document provides summaries of regulations in various places around the world, including England, Singapore, CA and AZ (page 43 provides a summary chart). It also compares the safety reports of various AV proviers

“Using agile governance and regulation to enable the development and deployment of innovative mobility services by the private sector

  • – Increasing the number of passengers using a vehicle in any given ride
  • – Improving user experience, with emphasis on public and shared transport services
  • – Preparing for a transition phase in which novel infrastructure is not yet available and operational and smart transport solutions will have to focus on efficient use of existing infrastructure
  • – Charting its strategy for the commercial deployment of AVs in Israel, MOT aims to create a regulatory framework prior to full market readiness that will assist in guiding market development and attract new players to conduct pilots and operate in Israel.”
  • The idea of using roundabouts and Vehicle-to-Vehicle and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure to improve traffic efficiency was alluded to in the above story. What wasn’t envisioned was using the autonomous vehicles to help smooth traffic. This IEEE paper suggests a fourth light color that would indicate an autonomous vehicle. The idea is that if you are in a human-driven car you could create a virtual platoon with the autonomous vehicle and you would get the advantage of making the lights. The study indicates that with only 10% of the cars being autonomous, traffic delays could reduced by 3%.

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