Self-Driving Cars: The Real Threat

Google-self-driving-car-prototype-front-three-quartersEverything you have heard about self-driving cars misses the point. (They are sometimes called autonomous cars, but that term definitely misses the point.)

Self-driving cars are coming quicker than we thought. We have long been hearing about Google’s self-driving cars in California, but now every major car company is working on them, and the New York Times recently reported on their rapid advancement in China, which, as we will see, is significant in more ways than we might think.

Let’s do a little exercise in how to think about self-driving cars. In his 1964 book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan showed how the automobile was not a horseless carriage, but a front porch on wheels, which is how it brought us not only suburbia, but also the teenager.

Suppose we try to think about self-driving cars in similar term. Then we might say that GM puts computers in their cars, while Tesla puts their computers on wheels. But then what if we say that Google puts social networking on wheels? Google has the dorkiest looking cars, but it might have the winning vision.

Self-driving cars have made rapid advancements with affordable lidar (laser/radar) and the continued development of processer power. Cameras and lidar devices sit on the roof of the car, spin around, and detect things. Computers figure out what those things means (the traffic light turned red; the car in front came to a dead stop; a soccer ball rolled in front of the car) and decide what to do.

All of this is well reported. But let’s think a bit more about this. In my book, Visionary Creativity: How New Worlds are Born, I look at how various cultural “moments” are expressed in the science, art, and technology of their times. Think of the Newtonian worldview of absolute space, time, and causality, which brought us linear-logical thought, perspective painting, and industrialization. And the discrete individual. Then think of the nineteenth century with Maxwell’s electromagnetic fields, which brought us holistic thought, van Gogh’s paintings, and electric communications technologies weaving webs around the globe. And selves adrift in fields of flux.

So, if we think of self-driving cars as “autonomous” (which implies independent), we are in a previous era and we are missing the point. Going from Newton’s autonomous world to Maxwell’s electromagnetic fields where our car is a node in field is a big step. But Maxwell did his work more than a century ago; what of our world today? We might still think of ourselves as discrete entities, but that if we are actually parts of fractal clusters of interactive computational mobile networks? Then how should we think of self-driving cars? Look at the dominant technology of our time—social networks. Not just “friending,” “liking,” and “networking” on Facebook, but our entire integrated networked social, political, economic lives. (Find this idea more developed in “Visionary Creativity.”)

What might this mean? Let’s start with the car in front of your self-driving car. Your car could wait until it starts to stop, record its rate of deceleration, calculate what it might be going to do (maintain speed, gently break, jam on the breaks) and respond. Or!!! Suppose your car’s computer is in communication with the computer in the car in front of you and knows exactly what it is “thinking.” And of course it can go on from there. Wouldn’t you want the computers of all of the cars on the same road to be in communication with all of the rest? Then they could all agree, “Let’s break now,” and “Let’s resume speed now,” in unison.

Of course all of this is well understood. It is one of the ways self-driving cars will greatly increase the capacity of our roads with no new construction. Cars will zip along six inches apart with no need for multiple car-length buffers. But think this through and you will see that there is much more about to happen.

Suppose your car has a choice of using route A or route B. Both have light traffic, but route B is filled with passengers going to a sports stadium, and there was just an incident that is blocking the exit to the stadium. Your computer knows all this, and therefore knows that route A is the better choice and sends you that way. Now here is the important part: It knows this in part by knowing the current positions, but also the destinations (and later dinner plans and tomorrow plans) of all passengers on all roads—indeed a lot about what just about everyone, on and off the roads, is up to and is going to be up to. How should we understand this? Should we think of an ant colony with all kinds of ants doing all kinds of tasks, all coordinated by genes, instincts, pheromones, trails, antenna taps, etc? Is that the new us? Perhaps, perhaps not. (Recall above that I said that China was committed to self-driving cars in a big way? Gives us something to think about!)

The relationship of all this to Visionary Creativity? This brief exercise is intended to get us thinking about greater implications of our coming self-driving car culture. They will change not only how we travel, but who we are as human beings, just as the car itself did a century ago.

And there is more. When as a young man Henry Ford was deciding on the industry he would enter, he briefly considered manufacturing watches, but dropped the idea, realizing that not everybody needed a watch. What he saw was that everybody did need a car, even though cars hardly existed. He already lived in the emerging world of mobility. Likewise, the Visionary Creative business leader of the future who will succeed in the self-driving car industry will be one who not just understands (as we do now having read this), but fully lives in the world of fractal clusters of interactive computational mobile networks. Think of the moment John Gage, then Chief Researcher at Sun Microsystems, said, “The network is the computer.” We await that moment for self-driving cars.

Find more about Visionary Creative thinking and our emerging 21st Century in Visionary Creativity: How New Worlds are Born. And keep an eye out for my upcoming book, Visionary Creativity in Business.










The automobile is not a horseless carriage, it is a front porch on wheels.



To revive John Gage’s saying, “The network is the computer.”

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