2019 Transportation Conference in Zilina Slovakia
I recently spoke about autonomous vehicles at a transportation conference in Zilina, Slovakia. Most would be hard pressed to pinpoint this region on a map, and fewer yet would predict it to be a prominent forum for those looking to edge the world farther towards a truly driverless system.
Driverless cars are only a part - a necessary part - of this profound change in our transportation infrastructure.
And this precise truth is the topic I chose to address, finding myself one of many that sensed the softening attitudes toward truly innovative and, in many ways, radical ideas - the sort that is only given heed when a general instability, or uncertainty, as to the direction of technology and history develops. I invite you to read some of the speculation I brought with myself to Slovakia, in hopes that those aforementioned softening attitudes would indeed make way for greater consideration of the driverless road.
In order to get a handle on this change we may or may not be in the midst of, we must ask the following three questions:
1 will it happen?
2 how quickly?
3 what will the post-driver world look like?
The first question - Will it happen?- difficult to answer because it's so difficult to imagine. Our modern world is created, and complicated, by the automobile. The road and the vehicles on it are the largest transportation infrastructure in human history. The demands it makes are exhaustive:
Trillions to build,
Billions to maintain
Countless hours to operate.
The subject is personal, for all of us. Those hours are yours and mine. We are the owner/operators of the most essential component of this complex system, the car. We live with it, and love it, and pay for it, every single day.
That is why any significant alteration of this massive infrastructure will deeply impact our society and economy. It will affect the transportation sector, itself a multi-trillion dollar industry. It will affect every business that relies on road-based transport to connect to its suppliers, customers, and even its employees.
It will affect how we address the social and environmental costs of roads as they presently exist. (1 million dead per year worldwide, x tons co2, and fractured urban and rural landscapes).
That is why all three of these questions are important
But the first one is easy: the answer is yes.
Five years ago I would have to argue this point. Today I can just present evidence. The billions invested monthly to develop the necessary technology, the flurry of automakers and OEM partnerships. There are numerous startups in autonomous logistics (trucking companies, Waymo, Embark, Daimler, Einride, Volvo, TuSimple). Associated mobility platforms such as Uber (graphics of Uber, Lime bike, Jump etc) are making inroads into established models of car ownership and urban transportation. These are only companies that are in the news, who knows how many startups are in stealth mode. In Seattle, I have been in touch with a company working on self-delivering bike-sized vehicles for the bike-sharing market.
The reality is that autonomous cars have been under serious development for at least five years. The technologies that are foundational to a driverless system are developing at a rapid pace. (communication, sensors, computational components) If functional driverless cars are the ultimate goal of we are only 5 years away from the large scale production of these vehicles.
OK, I've answered the first question, And it seems I've answered the second question as well, but let me repeat; driverless cars are not the destination. They are a part, a necessary part, of a complex driverless infrastructure.
The future of cutting edge tech is hard to predict, but history provides us with excellent examples of change in the transportation sector. All driven by innovation, all transformative.
The most recent recent example is containerization and the development of intermodal systems. The shipping of cargo in a standardized steel box the transportation sector was transformed and between 1970 and 1990 the groundwork was laid for the process of globalization that continues today.
My father was hired in 1974 to participate in and, later, lead the process of developing container services at the Port of Seattle. By the time I graduated from University those steel containers had revolutionized maritime transport and integrated two transportation systems that had only come into existence barely a hundred years before These systems are my second and third historical examples.
Railroads, which entirely replaced horse-drawn carts for long distance transport during the second half of the 19th century. The speed of this process varied greatly from region to region, reflecting the limitations of newly industrializIng economies. The railroad required more than just complex new vehicles, but roads made completely of iron. This process took no longer than 50 years, and far less in many places.
Automobiles developed later in a more technically advanced and industrialized world. In spite of a greater scope of change overall, the transition from horse-drawn to horse-less vehicles took less than 30 years in most developed economies. The level of disruption was also significant, correlating with a period of growth at least as profound as that of the industrial revolution.
In all these examples it is hard to point to the beginning of the process. After all steam power was being explored by the Greeks and boxes are …...well….old. But like driverless vehicles there was a growing sense about their inevitability, and a fairly short, in historical terms, period in which they completely supplanted a previous form of transportation.
This begs the question - is the switch to driverless vehicles as significant as these examples?
The train and the automobile were essentially a combination of humankind's oldest technology (fire) with it's most powerful tool (the wheel). Driverless vehicles will marry them both with our most complex innovation (computers). By replacing the driver with a computer we do something fundamental. We update of the sensor, control, navigation, and communication systems of the automobile from a 100,000 year old savanna based algorithm (image from apeless carriage, monkey behind the wheel) to an endlessly upgradable package (add calculator to Mac to iPhone graphic). This is not an incremental change like airbags or even electrical vehicles. It is a game changer.
So, I've shown that these changes are "fast", but how fast?
Again I compare driverless road to the that created by the steam engine and the internal combustion engine, but in more detail. The vehicles themselves, though obviously more advanced than steam engines, are not significantly more complex than the cars we build today. We build them in their tens-of-thousands not 3 miles from here. (Kia plant in Zilina-@ 300,000 units/year)
And roads. Honestly, we already have more pavement than we need. The infrastructure required for a true driverless road is technically advanced but not physically extensive. There is more than enough pavement.
Pavement is hard to give up. It is public space, ground held in Common by all of us. None of the examples of change I've described involved a system so integrated with every aspect of our lives. Even horses were for the relative few.
We will have to give up space to this new system. Not much at first, but we are a long way from the world that allowed railroads, and autobahns, and interstates from being rolled out where and when as needed. This may be the first transportation revolution where societal/political factors rather than technical challenges govern the speed of development.
The driverless road could be implemented fairly soon , if we removed ourselves from the road. But because even modest segregation of human and automated vehicles is politically difficult (not to mention technically challenging) even a limited example of a true driverless road, a cesta bez vodicov, is 10 years away. And large scale adoption on a national level may take even 10 years longer.
For the next few years expect chaos. This should not be surprising. Every transition I described experienced similar beginning --cycles of excitement and disappointment, the demise of early contenders and established institutions, the surprising reinvention of moribund industries.
But after the storm?
The fun question. It is the one we know the least about. It's the one we can speculate freely about Even Hollywood gives us a hand on this one.
And I could spend hours discussing how this might affect, well, everything;
- real estate
-and many more
Imagine asking entrepreneurs in 1910 how cars would change society over the next 30 years. Not just the details, but the scope and depth of the changes to come would have escaped them. But their experiences do tell us one true thing
One (or two) True Things
The first thing; significant innovation in the transportation sector results in change that is universal. It supplants completely the form of transport it replaces. It will change the size and shape of the vehicles, it will change the roads. It will change how we approach business. It will change everything.
|Universal with exceptions!|
But that it will be universal doesn't mean it will be uniform. Every business, every region will experience the process, and the outcome, differently. Sometimes radically so.
A few words about the future of the Zilina region in regards to this change. It's a happy coincidence that my home region in the PNW has so much in common with my family's central European home. Both Seattle and Zilina are fast-growing metro regions that benefit from locations near the center of fast-growing regional economies. They both face significant geographical challenges stemming from topography. And they both stand to benefit enormously from a radical transformation in transportation. Political challenges are also central in both. There are many in this room that understand the centrality of road-building projects to municipal and regional political processes. It is the main reason there is so much work to do. Will you be out ahead of this change as it develops?
In conclusion - A wild ride. But so were all the transformations I have described. At the beginning of each change few anticipated the scope, and none the details, of the change that was about to take place. But most businesses survived as long as they did hold too tightly to a world that passing into history. However, those that played a leading role were those that took early risks, even if (especially if?) they failed. They were in a unique position to take advantage of the opportunities to this new world had to offer. As well as use these new tools to create the foundation for positive change. In this case, the world of human-operated vehicles and the roads that come with them.
I have a 20-year connection to the Zilina region, and I hope to spend at least 20 more years in an area of extraordinary beauty and historical significance.
I would like to join with as many as you as possible on a twenty-year road trip that will end with an entirely new transportation infrastructure and the life we build around it.