Are you ready for self-driving cars? Apparently they are going to be a big thing, but I have yet to meet anyone interested in turning their steering wheel over to the technology that makes my GPS unit “recalculate.” Is this a replay of the “Segway will completely change transportation” fiasco, or a genuine transforming technology?
Many major shifts in design have a rough start, so the occasional fender bender shouldn’t be a deal breaker. What will kill even the best ideas is shoddy implementation and picking the wrong customers; not to mention over-estimating the demand in the first place. Segways might be great for a scenic tour on a sun-shiny day, but they aren’t much good in a blizzard.
A great example of transformational technology being delayed waiting for the right customers is described in Peter Wright’s book, Formula 1 Technology (SAE order #R-250, 2001). In the 1970s, brake systems were improving rapidly but drivers trained in the lower open wheel formulas were still used to shifting for themselves and using their right foot to “heel and toe” between the throttle and the brake. Going faster meant using the brakes much more and with greater force. The clutch pedal had to go; a simple enough change even in pre-onboard computer times.
Except drivers — customers in this equation — didn’t feel comfortable giving up the “man pedal” so they could apply full brake and full throttle at the same time — even if that is what was needed to lower lap times. Fortunately, a new supply of customers was coming up from the karting ranks; not the rental carts at your local fun land, but suspension-less rockets that needed to be thoroughly flogged to go fast. These young daredevils were already adept at stomping on both pedals and Lotus designed an entirely new car to take advantage of Ronny Peterson’s two-pedal mastery.
So despite a cold reception from the current “car guy” crowd, I predict self-driving cars will eventually become commonplace. Fewer and fewer people buy manual transmission cars. Even high-performance models are moving to clutch-less paddle shifting. But the real customers are folks who just want to go from Point A to Point B with a minimum of hassle. The self-driving car would give them more time for texting, surfing the web, or personal grooming. If you commute in any major U.S. city, you see these activities going on every day in cars that are not designed for self-driving. Surely a computer can do a better job than someone’s knees.