Elevators and Self-Driving Cars

September 15th, 2016

Self-driving cars are very much in the news today, as technology companies and automakers race to make them a reality.

The technical challenges are significant. For example, what works for Google in California, may not work in Toronto. Self-driving cars currently have trouble differentiating between puddles, pot holes and even filled-in pot holes. Even worse for Canadians, they have trouble navigating with snow on the road.

Very detailed 3-D mapping can provide a solution to these problems and there is furious competition to develop such maps. Ride-sharing service Uber has bought a mapping start-up and according to the Economist is “hoovering up talent from Google”, while Ford is investing in another Silicon Valley mapping start-up. A major challenge with such detailed maps will be keeping them up to date. Think road construction in Toronto in the summer.

Despite the challenges, progress is rapid. Uber has been testing vehicles in Pittsburg for months and will soon offer paying customers rides in self-driving cars. Uber’s strategic business plan is to bring their costs per mile below the cost of owning a car. Meanwhile, Ford has announced that it will offer driverless vehicles to companies like Uber in 2021 with models for consumers around 2025.

For those who are skeptical that machines can do a better job than human operators, the automobile insurance industry has already determined that cars equipped with today’s rather rudimentary collision avoidance systems have significantly lower claims costs (and ultimately premiums). Collisions are either avoided altogether or happen at significantly lower speeds.

I firmly believe that we are in the early days of a revolution in transportation analogous to what happened earlier with elevators. There was a time which I am old enough to remember when every elevator had an operator. I also remember the white gloves and the patter. “Fourth floor, men’s clothes, children’s shoes.”

In the fifties, these elevator operators were replaced by “self-driving” elevators, but for many years, some people refused to use an elevator that did not have a human operator.

It is obvious that the transition to self-driving elevators is over. I suspect that at some point in the future we will look at the transition to driverless cars in the same way.