Autonomous Vehicles and a New Wave of Disruption

Nissan Autonomous Drive 2014 Geneva Motor Show. Photo by Norbert Aepli, Switzerland. License: CC BY 3.0.

There’s been a lot of talk about self-driving cars over the last few years, but the US Senate has finally announced that it will pass legislation clearing regulations and restrictions for manufacturers, “in essence providing a clear path to putting driverless cars on the road,” according to Tristan Green writing for The Next Web.

“It’s expected that the Senate bill will feature the same language as the House bill, indicating directives for manufacturers allowing them to field up to 25,000 vehicles initially, and upon proving that AI-powered vehicles are at least as safe as human-driven cars, an increase to 100,000 thereafter,” he writes. “This paves the way for millions of autonomous vehicles to be on the roadways within a couple of years.”

This news heralds one of the most potentially disruptive movements in technology since streaming video, as well as perhaps the most disruptive change in automobile history. With predictions ranging from the year 2020 to a more conservative 2024, the general consensus is that self-driving cars will eventually replace conventional automobiles, for better or worse.

Disruption, For Better or Worse

When we think of disruption, we often think of the saga of Blockbuster and Netflix. Blockbuster, sticking to the model of physical video and DVD rentals, stubbornly refused to believe that Netflix, a streaming service in its infancy and a successful rent-by-mail service, could ever overtake their tried and true model. Instead of adapting with the times, Blockbuster held on to a dying business model and went down with the ship — and the rest, as they say, is history (nobody has ever uttered the phrase “Blockbuster ‘n’ Chill” in any serious context).

Self-driving cars threaten to turn the automotive industry on its head in a similar fashion — but this disruption is occurring at a time when the main components that make autonomous vehicles possible are revolutionizing multiple industries. Ohio University Online lists machine learning/A.I., automation, big data, the IoT, on-demand economics as the technologies that are disrupting businesses the most in 2017, and each one of those technologies contributes functions to the self-driving car. Because nearly every industry is or will soon be undergoing disruptive change due to these same technological advances, the automotive industry itself may have other models to glean information from, whether it’s how to adapt to disruption, or how to avoid certain problems altogether.

For example, in the same way that Uber and Lyft ride sharing services disrupted taxi and public transportation, there’s a big concern that self-driving cars will disrupt — and possibly bankrupt — Lyft and Uber. Technologist Tim O’Reilly is quoted as suggesting such:

“If you actually understand the business model of Uber and Lyft, you realize how fatuous much of the analysis is of the impact of driverless cars on these platforms… they are [currently] using part-time drivers supplying their own cars, which means the number of cars they have scales automatically to meet demand… Now imagine they have all autonomous cars on the road. They have to have enough cars to meet that peak demand… If they put the cars on their balance sheet, they are going to have lower utilization, they are going to have all the costs, and the business will be actually worse.”

Driving Toward the Unknown

Of course, Tim O’Reilly’s opinion isn’t shared by all. Uber’s been moving ahead testing self-driving car-services anyway, because there isn’t any realistic escape from the autonomous revolution. Either get with the program, or go the way of the dinosaur/Blockbuster.

This serves to highlight that not only are there a slough of unknowns clouding a definitive view of the future, but that this technology is on an inexorable march and will disrupt much of the world as we know it, whether we’re ready for it to or not. This will force us to make decisions for questions that don’t necessarily have a clear-cut, black-and-white answer, but rather rely on an ethical interpretation to come to solution.

In Compare.com’s “To Swerve or Not to Swerve? The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars”, they present the morally ambiguous reality of no-win situations. On the one hand, they ask you to imagine what a driverless car should do in a situation where a school-bus stalls on the road in front of them, and their only only choice is to slam the brakes and impact the school bus, or slam on the brakes and swerve into the oncoming lane, where there is a prison inmate’s bus headed toward you.

“In a hypothetical situation where a driverless car must kill one person to save another, is it ethical to value a child’s life more highly than that of an elderly person? Or a doctor’s life more than a felon’s?” They ask.

However, on the other hand, they point out that 94 percent of car crashes are caused by driver error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even if these freak, “no-win” accidents did occur, they would occur at a rate far less than that of human-caused accidents, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars per years.

There’s no way to predict the future, but these are puzzles we must actively work to solve if we want to ride the wave of disruption instead of letting disruption control us. Roads filled with safe, self-driving cars will be truly awe-inspiring to witness, and would represent a significant milestone in human achievement, both technologically and in terms of humanitarian interests. However, it’s still a lengthy road ahead before we’re there, and the general public still has yet to fully comprehend the implications of a future filled with driverless cars. It is important that we navigate the fastest course — but it is imperative that we navigate the most morally and judgmentally sound one as well.

Nissan Autonomous Drive 2014 Geneva Motor Show. Photo by Norbert Aepli, Switzerland. License: CC BY 3.0.

Andrew Heikkila is a tech enthusiast, a futurist, and a business owner from the Pacific Northwest. He believes in the power of technology to guide the world in the right direction, but also understands human fallibility means it won’t always be used to these ends. Still, he has hope that people will transcend their natural devices, and become the beings we have the potential to be.

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