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Will the Google Autonomous Vehicle Drive Like the Segway?

Will the Google Autonomous Vehicle Drive Like the Segway?

A few days ago, there was a story in the LA Times about the California State Senate passing legislation approving the use of self-driving cars on California roads. The article said:
Google Inc., Caltech and other organizations have been working to develop such vehicles, which use radar, video cameras and lasers to navigate roads and stay safe in traffic without human assistance. Google has said that computer-controlled cars should eventually drive more safely than humans, who, after all, get sleepy and distracted and can’t see in every direction at once.
This was at the back of my mind when I listened to the webcast of Andy Bechtolscheim’s lecture on innovation (full YouTube video) at Stanford. During Q&A, I submitted a question via the web asking for Andy’s thoughts on self-driving cars as an innovation. He laughed it off saying he would not want to be in one. I was hoping for a more erudite response, but then I thought, the off-the-cuff reaction said a lot more. Here was an innovator, entrepreneur, investor, the kind of person that is likely to get excited about path-breaking innovations saying that he wouldn’t want to be in a self-driving car. Hmm…

So when I ask if Google’s autonomous vehicle will drive like the Segway, I obviously don’t mean in terms of automotive and transportation capabilities. We all know where the Segway went, er, not too far. It got relegated to niche scenarios – cops in malls and airports, in theme parks, and Woz playing Segway Polo!

Will the Google Autonomous Vehicle (GAV) go further or will it be relegated to it’s own niche scenarios like, oh say, self-driving golf carts, or self-driving tour vans in an African safari, essentially anyplace where the route is well known, starts and stops can be well defined and other traffic or pedestrian interference is likely to be minimal?
I love the technology behind such innovations as the Segway and the GAV. However, radical ideas, especially those that promise to disrupt at massive scale, not only need lot of support to become mainstream but also need to overcome opposition from unexpected quarters.

Henry Ford’s automobile was going to need new roads, gas stations. The regulatory and legislative environment needed to evolve to define good driver behavior when people figured they just couldn’t drive the automobile in all directions and at any speeds. With the car, for the first time, people could drive farther, so the invention was a must-have and had to be supported.

The Segway, on the other hand, faced staunch opposition from organizations like America Walks and the American Council for the Blind, who opposed the use of the device on America’s sidewalks. As a result, more than 30 states have sidewalk restrictions on the Segway. Moreover, there was this growing perception that anyone who used a Segway was likely just too lazy to walk. The invention could not change people’s behavior and became nice-to-have. People preferred to just walk, and also not getting hurt either on one or by one.

GAV is likely to face similar challenges. Is it a must-have or a nice-to-have? The whole point of a car, which gives most people a lot of pleasure, is the driving. Now there are people who grudgingly drive their cars out of no choice, but the feeling of controlling a huge machine is undeniable. There are other questions. How will the insurance industry look at GAV? How would fault be assessed in case of an accident? How much liability does the manufacturer assume? These are tricky questions and could cause delays in when the invention becomes widely available. This will likely need to be more of a public policy innovation in addition to a technology innovation. Otherwise we are looking at niche scenarios like the ones mentioned earlier.

Horses could not co-exist with Henry Ford’s automobile, the car won that battle. Pedestrians could not co-exist with the Segway, the Segway lost that battle. In this case, regular cars can share the same roads as the GAV, so its not so much a question of either-or. Over time the technology and public policy will both evolve to alter consumer preferences and behavior, so longer term I believe the future is bright for autonomous vehicles.

I have created a poll on Wayin to understand how the concept of an autonomous vehicle appeals to people. I would love to get your vote.

While we are at it to reduce human error and keep our roads safe, how about autonomous commercial aircraft to reduce pilot error especially when pilots fall asleep or get distracted in the cockpit!! And it’s not that much of a stretch considering we already have unmanned military and space aircraft.


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