Saturday, May 30, 2015

Game Changer

The automobile is a source of freedom for all but big city folk who have solid, reasonable options for transportation (and ridiculous traffic and parking fees). So outside a few big cities, no one would be willing to give up their car, right? Maybe. I think everyone knows self-driving cars are coming. To some extent, they're already here, even if not widespread yet. But natural next step may not even be to purchase a self-driving car but rather rent one when you need it. I, for one, welcome our new taxi-bot overlords.

There is very little remaining to make these viable. Obviously GPS and mapping technologies are involved so the car's computer can find the route to get you from beginning to end, and we've largely handed navigation over to these devices already anyway. When was the last time driving somewhere new that you didn't pull out your GPS or look up the Google Map before leaving? Likewise, many vehicles are coming with sensors that warn the driver of other cars around it already.

But let's take it a step further than just having it to the heavy lifting on the freeway. This is definitely something that can be a game changer in terms of Porter's 5 Forces - talk about bargaining power over your customers - if you can reduce their costs so much that they don't need to buy their own car and make it so they don't have to hassle with parking, that's pretty amazing. You can already call a car to get you with an Uber or Lyft app. It's just combining that system with the self-driving car instead of a professional taxi driver or an amateur Uber/Lyft driver.

What could we do with all the parking lots in front of stores? What will we all turn our garages into when we don't need our own car? You might think that you'll always want to drive your own car, but what happens when insurance rates go up for self-drivers so much due to the fact that they drive unsafely and get into more accidents? Insurance companies already have devices they can put in your car to measure how good of a driver you are by collecting data about your driving habits. They just have to compare your habits to those of the taxi-bots, and your rates skyrocket.

So then ethically, how does this affect us? More tracking of where you have traveled to and from being stored in someone's database (more because it's already happening some). Actually, anywhere you go carrying your cell phone, you're already being tracked and recorded wherever you go, and in many cities your license plate number is tracked as you drive around town..

One of the big ethical questions is what happens when someone does get hurt or killed? Fewer people will be hurt with self-driving cars/taxis, but instead of it maybe being the fault of the person driving, what if it is the fault of the programming of the vehicle? What if a sensor is dirty and doesn't catch debris on the roadway?

What is a fair trade-off there handing over the control of your travels in contrast with the overall benefits to individuals and society? There are some very tricky issues here, but self-driving cars are here, whether owned by individuals or by taxi companies or long-haul trucking companies. How many jobs will be created vs other jobs that will be lost? Could a community taxi-bot take kids around to sports and lessons so the soccer mom doesn't have to anymore? Could the dream of sleeping through a night-time road trip and awaking as you pull up to your destination become a reality? How would that affect the airline industry? Will my youngest never need to learn to drive? There's almost no end of the implications here.