Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment

Autonomous Vehicles Parallel Broadband

Find a New Audience and Be a Rock Star #

Book cover for NFOEC 1993
NFOEC 1993

A lesson learned many years ago is that one way to look like a “rock star” is to speak to a group that doesn’t know much about your topic. In my case, a talk I gave in June 1993 regarding cable modems to telephone and fiber optic engineers was so well received, one of the audience members practically gave a standing ovation (OK, he was standing when he made his glowing comments about the technology). It wasn’t like I had ground-breaking knowledge; it was just new to this particular audience*.

About a year later, I was fortunate to speak on the topic of Fiber to the Home and how wide-scale implementation wouldn’t really happen until at least 13 years later. I mention these examples, as the autonomous vehicle seems to have many parallels with broadband. Further, it feels like the autonomous vehicle is at a similar point to where the nascent broadband and Fiber to the Home technologies were 20 years ago.

Autonomous Vehicles Parallel Broadband #

Autonomous vehicles are packet-like and rely on sensors and external signals to determine the optimum route. This is similar to Internet Protocol over broadband where packets of data flow from one point to another and the route is dynamic and optimized based on the given conditions. In contrast, and at the other extreme of transport alternatives, rail is akin to previous generation Time Division Multiplexed communications systems, where there are certain time slots (train cars) for payload (data) that is confined to fixed routes. Like trains, TDM wasn’t the most efficient for many use-cases, as it didn’t accommodate shifting traffic patterns.

Along these lines, transportation engineer Paul Godsmark, writing in the Institute of Traffic Engineers blog, warns city planners that they need to closely examine large investments in fixed rail infrastructure, particularly in lightly travelled areas.

“And LRT [Light Rail Transit]? 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.”

Another parallel from the broadband world is the idea of a service instead of an ownership model. That is, autonomous vehicles could enable widespread “Transport as a Service”, as modeled here,. To date, transport as a service has meant public transportation, which has typically been an inconvenient “TDM” approach where the rider has to go to a transit stop, adhere to the schedule of the transit system and take a route that might not get them to their destination. The autonomous vehicle approach promises the potential of on-demand, door-to-door delivery (although as pointed out here, there will most likely be different tiers of service – another similarity to broadband).
Just like broadband, there are going to be challenges that have to be overcome in order for autonomous vehicles to become a mass-market product. At various points in time, broadband faced issues with things such as:
  • infrastructure – very little cable plant was two-way and telephone plant didn’t support high-speed very well 20 years ago (it could be argued that the infrastructure challenges were greater for broadband as compared to what will be required for autonomous vehicles –  broadband has essentially required a rebuilding of the entire physical cable TV and telephone outside plant).
  • operations – for instance, to scale to mass deployment, cable and telcos had to develop automated provisioning systems.
  • customer demand – initially, there weren’t applications, particularly video apps like Netflix, that compelled people to spend extra for a high-speed, always-on connection.
As technology evolves there will be periods where it will be over-hyped . If the predictions I cited in my paper 20 years ago had come true, today’s cable and telephone company landscape would be clearly different. Similarly, many of today’s predictions as to when and how autonomous vehicles will rollout will be inaccurate. This will lead to the periods of deflated expectations. There will be the critics who suggest there are seemingly insurmountable challenges that won’t be overcome.
In the meantime, there will be the engineers, product managers and manufacturers who learn from the challenges and continually and quietly improve the technology (both cable modem and FTTH technology have undergone multiple major revisions in the last 20 years). There will also be the business people who figure out ways to package this new technology to make it desired by and practical for the consumer.

The Future May Seem Far, But It Is Relatively Near #

And, like broadband, once the autonomous vehicle is introduced into the market, it will take time to reach a sizable penetration. It has been about 16 years since the commercial introduction of broadband in the U.S. By 2000, about seven years after my  talk on one way of enabling broadband, only 3% of the U.S. population had high-speed Internet. Three years later, the penetration had jumped to about 16% and had crossed the chasm from early adopter to early majority. With a sizable market, broadband-specific applications were developed  (e.g. Netflix streaming), making broadband attractive to the late majority and laggards and about 80% of the U.S. population now has some form of broadband.

To paraphrase baseball player/philosopher Yogi Berra, this feels like déjà vu all over again. We have been here about 20 years ago. If autonomous vehicles take the same path, then 15% penetration in 10 to 15 years seems reasonable. And Michael Robinson’s prediction that the steering wheel might be outlawed by the year 2040 seems in the realm of possibility.
The point is that city planners and politicians need to account for these changes as they make decisions today on big-ticket transportation projects, as well as large-scale development projects that will be impacted by the autonomous vehicle in the coming decades.

*Unfortunately, my white paper co-authors Bill Brotherton and Richard Murphy, who were the real brain-power behind the paper, weren’t with me on stage.

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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