I find it hard to not get excited about a future in which autonomous cars populate our streets. The utopian idea of a transport system that provides the convenience of a car alongside the ability to read, talk or sleep is very attractive.
But that science fiction-like future could just as likely turn into a dystopia, affecting 1 in 9 US jobs according the US Department of Commerce, not applying simple human judgment that would have prevented the fatality in Arizona a few weeks ago, and exposing a machine that's already being used for terrorist attacks to cyber threats.
There are good signs that the industry is being developed in a positive way. The Self Drive Act, passed by the US House of Representatives last year, is designed to manage those risks well while streamlining the process to introducing self-driving cars to the streets. And Jaguar Land Rover's deal to supply tens of thousands of luxurious electric vehicles to Google is a step that will surely move things forwards even faster.
In the background, however, businesses need to continually think about the risks. Waymo makes impressive claims to be the “world’s most experienced driver”, having covered more than 5m miles on public roads and 25bn miles in computer simulations, but the chilling footage from the Arizona dashcam makes it tricky to take comfort from large numbers alone (despite the Waymo CEO saying their car "would have handled that situation").
Those hurdles will be sufficiently overcome in time, I'm sure, providing those at the leading edge ensure to think about:
- The three most important words in the world of cars: safety, safety, and safety. Road crashes cause over 3,000 deaths per day, and another 20-50 million injuries per year. Turning those shocking statistics into a footnote in the history books will be the number one benefit of autonomous cars.
- Cyber risk. It remains, and will increasingly be, huge. In a world where you can switch on the heating in your car by speaking to your home assistant, the traditional view of protecting your 'network perimeter' needs to be updated.
- Jobs. As much as I'm sure some are arguing that we just need to allow the steamroller of progress to take everything over, it's important to consider the ethics of what's happening. Innovation is not an end in its own right, and forcing more than 10% of workers into unemployment is not a decision that anyone should take lightly.
"Everyone in the industry wants to create game-changing technology but in truth the opportunity to do it is very, very rare. It cannot be done by single companies in isolation. Breakthroughs only happen when companies, governments, authorities work together."