28 September 2012
SAN FRANCISCO–So much investment, so much sturm und drang around electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure. We’re hailing them one day, burying them the next, toasting them again the day after.
GM’s battery plant is on the ropes, but then Elon Musk is building superchargers for his Teslas, gleaming 480V Star Trek machines that pour energizing, solar-sourced juice into your $100,000 ride in minutes. Then Toyota bails on EVs altogether, saying there’s no money there. Fisker’s Karma is slammed by Consumer Reports.
Has there ever been another industry so fitful in its evolution? This despite the full faith and credit of the U.S. government (and others) backing the technology, the infrastructure and the promise of a green future. Still, it may well bear fruit…someday.
Meanwhile, emerging from the alleyways of automotive innovation is the driverless car. In the grand technological scheme, it’s a complete and utter surprise and represents a stunning disruption of conventional wisdom–all while it leverages affordable, here-now electronics technology. Thank you Gordon Moore, thank you Vint Cerf, thank you Al Gore, thank you internet of things, thank you embedded design engineers and software coders. Thank you Nevada and California. You have set the type for the next chapter in the history of disruption.
In the next 25 years, the driverless car will be to our culture what the PC and the Internet combined were a generation ago–the surprise enabler of the once-unimaginable. Talk to any automotive engineer at Freescale, Infineon, Renesas, Bosch or any other leading supplier, and he’ll tell you about the immediate impact on safety, traffic, from spacing to average speeds even to highway design (highways could be narrower because spacing can be tighter). She’ll tell you about the favorable impacts on the environment, car maintenance and insurance
rates, and on the human condition (less stress, easier commutes).
Then there will be non-obvious impacts. Vivek Wadhwa and I wer chatting about computing innovation a couple of weeks back over coffee and he veered into another lane, the impact of driverless cars: “It changes urban planning forever.” Parking is pushed to less-expensive, outer-ring portions of densely populated cities because you can send your car out to park once you’ve stepped out and summon it back. Need to grab a cup of coffee? Pop out of your car and have it drive around the block until you’re ready.
In fact, it probably changes the mechanics (and economics) of car ownership forever. It makes services like Zipcar a lot more convenient and accessible..
The Roomba precedent
Are there hurdles? Absolutely, but the most populous U.S. state has bought into the program and technology, while it can obviously improve, is here now and cost is falling fast. Already I’m hearing of entrepreneurs building after-market driver-assist sensors systems you just stick on your car and connect via WiFi to your smart phone. Um, wow.
People don’t think twice about a robotic vacuum cleaner wandering through their living rooms, and, in the not-too-distant future, the sight of a moving car with a “driver” reading a book or even sleeping won’t be novel.
As a culture we have struggled mightily–shoving a square peg into a round hole–just to change the fuel source for a car and patch together an infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Jetsons Age just sneaked up on us.