Consequences

Paul Raven @ 12-03-2013

I do keep saying that futurism isn’t about making predictions, don’t I? Well, that’s because I really believe it. Prediction — in the sense of declaring with great certainty that [x] will come to happen — is a waste of time, because you have no way of accurately determining whether or not the prediction will be validated until the moment at which it is validated (or not). Stick to gambling on horses or stock prices, if gambling’s your thing.

I’m increasingly starting to think of futurism — or at least the sort of futurism I’m interested in doing — as being first and foremost about looking at consequences. This is an extension of the standard technological forecasting methodology, which tends to draw a temporal line through recent, current and projected technological developments in order to conclude that — at some point, however loosely defined — there will be a marketable technology that achieves a (seemingly) desirable goal.

Thing is, the desirable goal isn’t the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s only the beginning.

Example: driverless cars! Think how wonderful the driverless car revolution will be: you’ll be able to read a book or eat your breakfast during your commute! No more traffic jams! It’ll totally revolutionise personal transportation!

See the problem? This sort of thinking makes one exciting extrapolation against a freeze-framed status quo, and then extols the revolutionary change thus achieved. And much as there are days when I wish with all my heart that the world only changed in one measurable and discrete way at a time, it just ain’t so.

I can’t take credit for this particular insight, at least not independently; the redoubtable (and, even by my standards, prolix) Dale Carrico did a great job of shredding driverless car boosterism from his gadfly pulpit in the draughty towers of the White World Future Society. The critical point is this: making cars driverless doesn’t actually solve any of the biggest pressures on the private vehicle sector at all; it just ameliorates (or promises to ameliorate) some of the more unpleasant social side-effects attendant on the inescapable necessity of using what was once extolled as a technology that would improve lives by reducing journey times. (Oh, the irony.)

Making your car driverless doesn’t remove or reduce your need to be sat in the damned thing for hours twice a day; it won’t make your tanks of gas any cheaper or less environmentally damaging; it won’t roll back decades of suburban sprawl and expensive freeway infrastructure; and it’ll be a long time before the technology is cheap enough to make an impact on ordinary people, ie. those who would benefit most from reduced costs and more free time. By the time they’re widespread (if they ever are), the steady increase in the number of vehicles on the road will have countered any significant change in traffic loading; furthermore, those changes will be held back by the necessity of sharing the road system with manual ‘legacy’ vehicles.

The driverless car is not a revolution in personal transportation. It is merely a reinvention of the wheel, an iterative development — and a way of selling more new cars. Driverless cars may well change the world — but not for you, or at least not for your benefit.

This is what I mean about consequences; this is where futurism needs to make a point of bringing people — real, ordinary people — into the frame where the Brand New Shiny is being considered.

If you go and look at Carrico’s burner linked above, you’ll see a comment from Yours Truly where I did exactly that — shifting the predicted “disruption”* away from the average (and increasingly mythical) consumer and relocating it in those realms where big budgets and and slim margins make the cost of investing early look tempting. Driverless cars will only be available as commercial products to the super-rich, at least at first; driverless technology, however, will fit just as well into the trucks of the long-distance haulage industry, who have a whole laundry list of reasons to jump all over it at the soonest possibility: as fuel costs continue to rise, the prospect of a fleet of truck drivers who a) only require a one-off upfront payment at hiring time [ie. installation outlay cost], b) don’t need sleep, biobreaks or union representation and c) can drive around the clock with no drop in alertness is going to give haulage companies the biggest boner the poor bastards have had in years.

And hey, would you look at this?

Via Fast Company; OK, so these road trains still require one human driver in the lead cab, but I’ll bet my shoes and socks that’s more to do with allaying legislative (not to mention public) fears about the technology failing than a genuine necessity.

Ella Saitta once said to me that “the internet eviscerates everything it comes into contact with, and then turns it into something more like the internet”. The internet is all about cutting the need for human activity out of any commercial transaction, and about minimizing the length of supply chains.

If you think driverless technology is going to make your life better in the near future, you’re either a haulage company owner, or not paying attention.


* — The mutating semantics of the word “disruption” in the context of the tech-start-up scene is more than a little worrying to someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how language gets used; disruption is increasingly seen as a positive, a desirable thing, an opportunity to make a profit by eviscerating an existing industry that can’t compete with your new way of doing things. Which not only ties in with Ella’s observation, but also allows an insight into how some tech CEOs think: that collapsing a market is acceptable if you can then seize it wholesale.

Sounds a bit like US foreign policy during the Noughties, no?

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9 Responses to “Consequences”

  1. thegrumpyowl says:

    RT @PaulGrahamRaven: Consequences: http://t.co/eQHHeiMJ9r

  2. PriceMatthewJ says:

    Your argument has two parts. First, that autonomous cars will not be cheap enough to be available to most people, and second, even if they were, they would not solve the problems we care about.

    You are entirely wrong and mostly wrong, respectively.

    For the first part, I suppose the key phrase here is “any time soon” which could mean a wide range of time. There are two ways in which you will be wrong however. First, wealthy people will employ the technology in their businesses. Not just long distance trucking (though certainly that) but also taxis and buses.

    Second, the sensors and AI that make the technology expensive right now will fall in cost at the same 50% deflationary rate that all sensors and computation falls. A system that currently costs Google a hundred thousand dollars and Oxford 7500 dollars may soon cost 150 dollars to add to existing vehicles.

    The part you got right is that this will only marginally improve things like pollution or prevent you from having to sit in it. However the thing you didn’t mention whatsoever is the problem I’m most eager to see addressed, which is the 1.2 million deaths caused by automobile accidents worldwide every year, 90% of which are due to human error. This, in addition to the millions more injuries (many of which carry an additional cost of a lifetime of chronic pain and health costs) is reason enough alone to pursue the technology with all speed.

  3. Michael Anissimov says:

    Paul, what point are you trying to make by calling WFS white?

  4. Paul Raven says:

    That it seems unable to see beyond the borders of the US without donning the rose-tinted spectacles of Western-led progress and hegemony, and that it elides many of the most serious issues on its own home turf by concentrating on technotopian woo like driverless cars. If futures is politics, WFS is the GOP; a once-important power drifting into senescence.

  5. ProfVencire says:

    Well, driverless cars might not immediately or individually improve those things, but given time and taken as a whole they might:
    If reaction times for the cars are better than that of humans and they’re capable of communicating with other cars (or a larger network), they can go faster and with fewer unnecessary slow-downs or minor variations in movement = reducing fuel consumption and drive times. Similarly, if they have access to good maps (topological and otherwise), they may be able to best adapt for optimum mileage.
    If good at avoiding collisions, as PMJ talks about above, a lot of indirect resources are saved in medical, social, and property spheres.
    If good at determining their own wear-and-tear, potentially cheaper to maintain (and potentially could do minor maintenance on themselves, not necessarily as repair but more in adjusting their operations to minimize stress when environments change ~ snow, heat, dust, etc.)
    If self-driving cars are safer and get in less accidents, giant heavy vehicles may show a decline in purchase (giant vehicles might not since now drivers have time to do other things and may want the space to do those things in)
    Legal costs could be cheaper as more cases become open-and-shut regarding blame (or lack thereof) with access to onboard records. Similarly, DUIs go way down. Eventually, even highway patrol personnel may be able to be something that drops.
    And, of course, time spent in them will no longer be half-wasted by needing to pay attention to the road, reducing stress (which has meaningful effects on productivity) and increasing opportunity to do other work (if desired) or sleep or eat or any of the other things people neglect doing like they should.

  6. twitter_taramayastales says:

    Not everything has to be a “revolution” to improve everyday life. My life has already been improved significantly just by having GPS in my car. (I’ve saved hours on the road not being lost!) If I could also turn my commute into work or leisure time (say, checking email or watching a movie), that would rock my world. But even if the self-driving cars were expensive, I would still consider investing in one for my mom.
    Remember that South Park episode where all the Senior Citizens drive home from Bingo at the same time, turning the streets into a horror movie?
    The Baby Boom is hitting the Age of Dangerous Driving. If I could help my mom out by buying her an self driving car, it would not only improve her life and my life, but it would improve yours too, if you drive on any streets near her. Trust me on this…

  7. Paul Raven says:

    Prof, tara; all of the benefits of driverless cars that you’re suggesting here would be equally well provided by a reduction of private vehicles and an expansion of an affordable public transport system — with the added bonus that those currently unable to afford to drive would benefit as well. The issue here is that, as a rule of thumb, the USian sense of identity is almost utterly linked to car ownership; we have a similar problem here in the UK, but it’s not as severe. Collective ownership or by-the-hour rental set-ups look to be the best transitional option, but it’ll take someone with the political willpower to make you start paying what your gasoline is actually worth before it makes any difference.

  8. Ilya Taytslin says:

    “as a rule of thumb, the USian sense of identity is almost utterly linked to car ownership”

    I live in US, and I can say with assurance it is no longer true. It was true a generation ago, but this car-worship is disappearing, and surprisingly fast. One of the comments on Dale Carrico’s article said “go on a road and count sensibly designed cars compared to flashy ones”. Where I live (Massachusetts) Priuses and Camry hybrids vastly outnumber Corvettes and Camaros. And *every* teenager I know, male and female, views cars as an appliance or a necessary evil, and drives as little as possible. Their identities are tied to their smartphones, not their cars.

  9. ProfVencire says:

    I agree; I feel that mass-transit, foot and bike traffic, and changes to urban planning are probably all better options, particularly in the here-and-now and near-future, particularly for the not-super-rich and the non-corporate-bodies that are most legally recognized individuals. That’s different than saying it won’t really make a noticeable difference for the average consumer. The issue then really becomes whether the flash and all of driverless vehicles is diverting impetus from more immediate, more affordable, more generalizable, more accessible, or more sustainable options. I can easily see a future of millions of one-to-two person self-driving vehicles, which will (eventually) be something that those who aren’t allowed to drive can use. But “millions of” doesn’t service the “billions of” folks who’ll be in existence (probably). Still, in countries with high car ownership and heavy bias due to the sunk-cost of car infrastructure, the effects could be significant (even if those effects then further reinforce the rut of cars-over-mass-transit). Differential utility is to be expected, right? Like how new, portable, individual, cheap water filtration devices means a lot to countries lacking in water infrastructure, but significantly less to those that do. It’s a more noble example of individual-over-cooperative tech than self-driving cars, but still.

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