Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for October, 2014

The automated car and the future

Ever since I worked at DaimlerChrysler in 2006-2007 (before the split), I’ve been thinking about how the world will change with the advent of automated driving. The concept of automated cars have existed for a long time, and a successful highway demonstration was done as early as 1995 in San Diego. Lots have happened since then (and since I started wondering about this) such as Stanley winning the DARPA Grand Challenge and Google getting into the driverless car game and creating an adorable prototype.

Google Automated Car

Back when I was at Daimler, I had many discussions with the people there, and the general prediction was that automated highway driving will happen in 2020 and automated city driving in 2025. With Google throwing an incredible amount of capital into the game, the timeline has moved forward, and we already have semblances of automated highway driving with adaptive cruise control and automated lane keeping. Nevertheless, most of us don’t have access to the technology and still drive our very manual cars to work, to do the groceries, etc.

The technology will improve, become cheaper, and more and more people will have access. How will this future unfold? And how will it affect the way we live? (The following future forecasts are roughly in the order of near term to long term)

Staged Roll Out

Automated driving will not suddenly come to all roads at once, that kind of change is simply too disruptive. As highway driving is more simple (no need to worry about lights or pedestrians), automated highway driving will happen first. New cars with such automated features will initially drive along side manual cars, but dedicated lanes for automated driving will appear. As automated cars will require much less following distance, this will help minimize congestions on those lanes. Sooner or later, in the name of efficiency and safety, all manual driving will be banned from highways.

Manual cars fade out

As with highway driving, more and more city driving will become automated as technology improves and more infrastructure is rolled out (e.g. stop lights with cameras that can communicate with cars). Then after so many years of mixed automated and manual driving on the roads, after virtually everyone owns a car capable of automated driving, manual driving will become illegal in order to “save more lives and increase the efficiency of the roads.” This will be disruptive (all non-automated cars will become obsolete instantaneously) and people will protest (“taking away our god given right to drive!”), but it will inevitably happen. A slightly less drastic comparison: analog broadcast television is being switched off around the world as digital broadcasts are much more efficient with wireless spectrums.

Transportation become services

Public transport and any vehicle for hire with a driver are already transportation services that people utilize. The biggest reasons why more people don’t utilize taxis are financial. The labor cost of the driver is simply too expensive compared to owning a car, storing it, and driving oneself. With the cost of the driver gone, the financial advantage for owning a car becomes minimal and with ICT making arranging vehicles easier, in time, most people will forgo owning a car and rely on automated hire services.

Car brands become irrelevant

As transportation become more of a service and less about ownership, the brand value of automotive companies built up over many decades will plummet. The end user will care less about the car they are riding in and more about the service operator, the true touchpoint between the transportation system and people. You can already see this in the rental car industry where cars are being rented by category (e.g. “compact” “economy” “full size”) rather than the brands of the cars themselves (yes, they are often mentioned but with the caveat “or similar”).


The industry will consolidate

While the automotive industry has gone through multiple phases of consolidation in the past, automated driving will drastically reduce the number of automotive companies in the world (currently around 30 major players). One factor driving this would be the amount of investment required by companies to compete in the automated car world, not something all car companies will be able to afford.

Another factor is simply the declining automotive market. Currently most private cars sit idle for over twenty hours a day, slowly depreciating and becoming obsolete. With cars becoming services and being utilized virtually 24/7, the demand for cars will decline significantly, shrinking the automotive industry and forcing it to consolidate.

The third factor is that as private transportation becomes more of a service and less of a product, the purchasing dynamic will change. When millions of individuals are making somewhat rational (only cars with good gas mileage) and somewhat irrational (only cars made in my country) decisions on what cars to buy, there is room for many companies. When cars are being bought in bulk by service operators, there will be less room for companies. Think of how many companies make airplanes or trains compared to cars.

The best will vertically integrate

As car brand value diminish and cars become commoditized, the successful car companies will build upwards in the value chain creating their own transportation service along with the required background support services (e.g. maintenance). Other car companies that don’t move fast enough will become low margin commodity providers to new service providers, whoever they may be (Uber?).

Cars will not resemble what they look like today

As the wheel-less one-button Google prototype have shown, automated cars do not need the same features and aren’t bound to the same design restrictions as manual cars. While the general size of the automobile won’t change drastically due to the size of the existing roads, expect future automated cars to be very different as they become more shared vehicles for service operators. Furthermore, as most cars on the road today carry one or two people at any given time, smaller two seat cars will become the norm while the larger cars will only be hired for special occasions.

Future Concept CarFuture Driverless Car Concept from 1957

Marker less roads

Visual markers on the road are for human drivers, but automated cars will communicate with the environment and different infrastructure using much better and more reliable technologies. As such, visual markers will no longer become necessary except for places where the road intersects intersects with human traffic (pedestrian or bicycle). Automated cars will be able to move in lanes without any visual lane markers.


Cost of transportation will go down, but not so much

Currently in developed countries, consumers spend 10-20% of their income on transportation which includes automobiles, gas, public transport, etc. but not tax money spent on infrastructure. By being able to utilize cars 24/7 and not having vehicles depreciate in garages, the cost of operating a car will go down, but that’s only a fraction of the cost of transport. Insurance costs also will go down with safer cars, but there are still a lot of other costs such as energy and infrastructure. Energy cost may go down with electric cars (I’m not sure if the world supply of Lithium and battery systems can keep up or how fast cheaper, less scarce alternatives will appear) but infrastructure cost will inevitably go up with more technology involved in an automated driving system (sensors along the roads that can communicate with cars). With either taxes on people or companies, those costs will ultimately be passed on to the end consumer. Then there is the new service layer that would want its own cut of the pie, so while the cost of transportation will go down, don’t expect it to become virtually free.

Productivity will go up

Today, incredible amount of time and attention is wasted on driving. Simple manual work of turning the steering wheel and pressing the pedal consumes so much of our lives, and to make that unnecessary would be of great benefit to people. While not everyone’s work can be done on the go, those who can will see increased productivity in turning commuting time into work time. Tech companies are already starting to do this in Silicon Valley by offering their employees WiFi enabled shuttles. It may sound depressing to be working while commuting, but the end effect will be people being more productive with their time and spending more time outside of the office/work on leisurely activities.

There will be new exciting business models

Besides leasing and ownership, there aren’t too many different business models for private cars. However, when private transportation service becomes the primary way we travel, different companies will bring forth many different business models trying to cater to people’s various needs and price sensitivities. Some that come to mind: all you can ride (the ideal but expensive), ad supported (advertisements being played in the cabin), variable pricing (more expensive during peak hours). If you think navigating different cellphone plans are confusing…

The real value is the life and time saving

There are roughly 36,000 road fatalities in the US per year, a high but necessary cost of keeping people moving. In 2011, the the average American commuter spent 38 hours in traffic congestion. A 2009 AAA study estimated the societal cost of crashes at $300 billion and congestion at $97.7 billion, both astoundingly large figures. While automated driving won’t decrease these numbers to zero, there will significant reductions as drunk, distracted, tired, and reckless drivers are taken off the road and central algorithms move cars much more smoothly. A fully automated driving system will also require minimal distance between the cars (i.e “Platooning”), allowing for a much more dense usage of the roads.


Some public transportation will remain

Busses will most likely disappear as they become replaced by automated car services (some countries will have a hard time doing this with stringent labor laws and strong unions) but not all existing public transportation will disappear. Within high density cities such as New York, Paris, Tokyo, London, there simply isn’t enough road space for everyone to use automated transportation services during peak hours. The existing metro systems will still thrive as the cheaper alternative for most people while the rich will exclusively use automated car services, just like they do with taxis now.

As for long distance rail, their fate is slightly more uncertain but I believe that they will still provide value as the energy cost of transporting a passenger with a train is much lower than with an automated car. As a result, I do believe that the California High-Speed Rail should still proceed. If anything, automated car may make the system more valuable as people will be able to more easily navigate Los Angeles once they arrive instead of relying on the current miserable public transport system.

Increased usage of land

It is said that 50% of land in L.A. is used for parking lots and roads. While we won’t be able to get rid of the roads, most parking spaces will become unnecessary once automated car services take over. Sure cars will need places to be repaired and maintained but that could be done at the edges of town. As more land become available for new use, expect land values to decrease and articles like “Ten things you can do with your garage now that you don’t need it anymore.”


Suburban renaissance

Suburbia, once the icon of middle class ideal has gotten a bad rap in the previous few decades as cultureless sprawl of oversized homes. Younger generations look to the city for its cultural density and navigability by foot, public transport, and/or bicycles. The pendulum will swing back as suburbia becomes more easily and conveniently traversed by automated car services. Instead of having large cities be the hotbed for cultural activities, many smaller centers each with its unique identity will emerge where people can escape for the evening but easily return to their bigger comfortables homes. Furthermore, as the internet keeps improving the discoverability of niche destinations, automated driving will help the access to these places.

Technologies inevitably change our world and the way we live, and technology as big as automated driving will have a massive impact on our society. While the first order effects maybe obvious, the second order, third order effects will be harder to forecast and there will be countless unintended consequences beyond our imagination. While I believe that automated driving will bring more positives than negatives, many people will lament the new technology destroying “life as we knew it.” The challenge for us isn’t to fight the inevitable progress of technology or blindly follow it but to think about the end results and make adjustments accordingly. What do you think will happen to the world once automated driving proliferates?


Ultimate Frisbee Personality Types

The other day I was talking with my teammate about the incredible diversity of players we have on the Frankfurt Ultimate Team, and we started discussing how some players were similar and different. From there, the idea of “Ultimate Frisbee Personality Types” started to organically emerge.

A little background: the “team” I play for, Eintracht Frankfurt, is large, diverse, and much more of a community than just a team. While we have 30-50 “core” players, in the past year, more than 110 people have shown up to at least one practice. From there, we field numerous different teams for both competitive and “fun” tournaments. Many cities with so many players would have broken into few different teams, but Frankfurt sticks together, and this is something I love about our community.

In our discussions about the different players, three main typologies arose:

Free spirited
These are the people that give Ultimate the hippie stereotype, even though it is no longer true. Enamored by the community and the alternativeness of the game, these people not only love the sport but also the lifestyle.

I avoided using the term Jock because of it’s negative connotation, but these are the people who treat Ultimate foremost as a sport and the ones who care more about improvement and winning. As Ultimate becomes more mainstream, I believe it will attract more and more of these kinds of people.

Again avoiding terms like geeks or nerds, these were the kinds of people who joined Ultimate in the initial growth era because it was a sport that involved skills, thinking, tactics, and athleticism while being generally free from the “Jock” culture. These are the people who love the game but aren’t too competitive and love the lifestyle but aren’t too radical.

This of course doesn’t mean that every player has to fit into one of the above personalities. People can be a mix of the different personality types and the better way of thinking about it is the following triangle:

Ultimate Frisbee Personality Types

Where do you belong? How does your team fill out the triangle?

I consider myself to be somewhere between Intellectual and Free Spirited while my friend thought I was somewhere between Intellectual and Sportsman.

Our team has players in every single part of the triangle, which I think is what makes our community diverse and great. Talking generalities and not mentioning any names:

  • The younger and newer players tended to be more on the right hand side of the triangle
  • The casual players were more on the left hand side of the triangle
  • This meant that the serious tournaments (like the German championships) are attended by people on the right while the rest play more “fun” tournaments
  • The “ambassadors” (people reaching out and attracting other players) were on the upper half of the triangle
  • There was a noticeable gap between the Intellectual and Free Spirited

These are of course general observations and there are many exceptions. How does this fit with your experience?


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