The future of automated driving is on the streets

Four years ago, I wrote on this blog that the impact of automated driving would be felt both in the metropolis but also outside the big city, where mobility is more challenging to run economically. Today I believe the same to be true. That more than ever we should be striving for automated driving in the streets, not just on the highway.

In the days before Covid, speaking at conferences, I was often asked if automated driving is really coming. To paraphrase William Gibson, automated driving is already here, just not available for everyone. Living through an industry-wide transformation there is no magical inflection point. No picture-perfect red carpet moment when someone flips the switch and all the infrastructure is provisioned, all vehicle systems suddenly switch to full automation, and everyone has both access to and sufficient understanding of the system’s operational limits. Progress at industrial and global scale is gradual and spans decades. There was truck platooning twenty years ago in Japan, there was the DARPA Challenge twenty years ago. Today we’re still researching how to offer resilient and robust automated driving. Twenty years hence we’ll still be pushing the limits of what can be done. Sea change is gradual but inevitable.

Another area I kept being asked was when we will reach Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy. Again I kept trying to explain that it is already here. The focus of the question should not be what autonomy but where. Why do we put up with experiments focused on highways representing less than 1% of the world’s roads, away from where humanity actually lives? The focus of automation should be away from the tightly access-controlled highways and down into the chaotic, busy and generally ramshackle streets where we live our lives day to day. The residential roads, back roads, driveways, boulevards or other nondescript roadways we see at least twice every time we leave and then return to our homes. This is where most of humanity live most of their lives. Where most goods are finally delivered to our homes, and where we need to focus our efforts to provide the benefit of automation to everyone. Hence the renewed efforts by Waymo, Lyft, Toyota and others to support commercial vehicle automation in addition to the arguably more complex passenger vehicle automation.

Looking back to the early era of automotive experimentation can shed light on what’s to come. The second half of the 19th century saw experimentation with some of the names still synonymous with luxury today: Daimler is a good example. Most of the big names who started the journey then fell by the wayside. The 20th century saw the real winners who decided to made global scale impact to empower as many of us as possible. The VWs, Fords and Toyotas and others who looked to enable the mass market with mobility machines that allowed daily freedom combined with robustness. They are still here and can still lead the discussion.

If we are to learn from these successful innovators of the past, if we truly hope to re-enact the success of the earlier age of automobile exploration, where should we be focusing our energies? The answer is simple. Go to where the people are. In Japanese they call it genchi genbutsu. If that is true, where is this humanity we profess to serve? If we are to impact humanity positively with technology then it should be built with daily freedom and robustness in mind for all of humanity. From a recent automated driving implementation perspective, we have China, the EU, the US and Japan. And a number of others. The usual suspects. Large and advanced economies with (we hope) sufficient disposable income. But we also have population juggernauts such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, Bangladesh, Philippines, Mexico, Pakistan, Ethiopia and many more countries who support a sizable and growing proportion of humanity and today are still seemingly denied one of the more fundamental human rights. That of freedom of access to automated mobility regardless of socio-economic status.

Some may scoff that automated mobility is not worthy of the same cachet as food, shelter and education. But as social mobility and wealth distribution stagnates in most of the world or is in a state of regression, the ability to access new economic opportunities a little farther away from where you live should not be hindered by economic inability to purchase the method of travel there. In a post-Covid world and for those unable to move freely due to disability or care commitments, physical inability to drive or travel should not preclude you from receiving services or products to your home. If the automobile led the first revolution in motorized freedom, automated mobility will lead the second. Opening up automated motorized freedom is a necessary social infrastructure also for the elderly, the sick, those with house-bound commitments to family, and all those who simply cannot afford to buy and maintain cars anymore due to the commodification of labor through the gig economy. That gives the illusion of job growth while chipping away at fundamental labor law gains and ensuring a majority of the population is stuck in the new swamp of the working poor.

Similar to Henry Ford, I do believe paying a decent wage in return for labor is a recipe for success. Rather than having social security subsidized by tax at a level that can never hope to sustainably meet the decent wage it was supposed to cover in the first place. Especially a problem today where the math of asking younger generations with precarious jobs to support the regular economic needs of an aging population increasingly don’t add up. Yet there is no good answer re how to replace this model. I am no economist, nor politician, nor do I aspire to be. But when there is no major economic boom or world war rebuilding to support automatic wage growth, we need to pay people at a level that they have decent disposable income to have people re-invest in the economy. Until the global economic system brings more fairness into the game to reignite eg a post World War Two like boom that lasts at least two decades, it is our job to bring down prices to a point where it is profitable for third parties to sell on products and services based on a global software infrastructure. Then help re-inject newly found disposable income or wealth to good use. And restart the dynamo.

Furthermore my belief is that the dynamo of the world economy is no longer in the Northern and Western Hemispheres. In the 21st century it is being transferred first to the Eastern then Southern Hemispheres. So we should build with this in mind. Focus on the dynamic growing economies of the Global East and South outside the usual automotive markets. Set aside wishes about mature legal frameworks and perfectly curated local markets. Lest we forget how tightly controlled and protected UK markets were in the 17th and 18th centuries, or US markets in the 19th century, and which led to long-term industrial ecosystem success. Set aside concerns around fluctuating currency markets, primarily due to weakened economies unable to anchor investment and ensure stability over the longer term. Let’s not forget how we got to Bretton Woods for example. And let’s be pragmatic about allowing local automotive and software markets to flourish (growing local industries) while allowing market access to automated mobility software goods (growing local economies). Grow quickly to cover all the key markets of 2030 as the motors of collective innovation and growth for the next decade beyond.

So we take a leap into the unknown, into a world that does not yet exist, even in the minds of those who are there. A world where automated mobility was never even imagined, and yet soon will be boring. Hopefully we won’t all be sleeping in the backseat. But as on the Tokyo underground on any given morning, I believe a good few of us will be. Thanks to a boring but robust infrastructure on which to build sustainable ecosystems and industries for longer term happiness in each locale. If we can diversify our global growth to those who have never experienced universal access, imagine what we can achieve. Progress for humanity resides in our ability to share and promote improvements (such as technologies) to help people in their daily lives. Success depends on how quickly we can share robust tools of innovation to support sustainable future growth. Our journey starts today and it starts in the streets.