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UBER has a fleet of self-driving cars in operation in Pittsburgh.  Several journalists have taken a ride. Read excerpts from their reports, with links, below. But first, some thoughts from Uber’s top dog.

According to Travis Kalanick (Uber’s CEO) in Business Insider:

traviskalanick-pngIt’s not just an engineering challenge that’s deterministic, and I know what I have to build. We are figuring out as we go what has to be built because, even when you have the world’s experts on this challenge, there are things that even if you’re Google, or even if you’re anybody, Apple, all the guys that are working on it, there are things that haven’t been invented yet. And that’s part of the fun. . .

. . .  you’re still going to need a human-driven parallel, or hybrid. And the reason why is because there are just places that autonomous cars are just not going to be able to go or conditions they’re not going to be able to handle.

The first part of this quote points to the huge challenge of standardization, in a near-term future where an Uber car needs to communicate something about intent, timing, car-train cooperation or God-knows what else, to another robo-car made by Ford, Tesla, BMW, Mercedes, Apple, Google, Baidu, NuTonomy and so on.  And it’s all been invented in-house, with key components guarded jealously as trade secrets that enable domination.

uber-driverless

Mike Isaac in the New York Times writes about the test drive experience:

During my ride, most of which I spent as a passenger in Boron 6’s back seat, my safety engineer proved his worth. At various moments, he had to take over the wheel and turn through intersections where locals are known to speed. When a truck driver backed out into the road illegally, he put his foot on the brake, immediately taking control of the car. . .

. . .  But for most of the ride, I felt safe. In self-driving mode, turns and stops were near seamless, and I often had to check in with my driver to see whether he or the computer was steering the car. I did grow a bit nervous a few times when watching how close the computer drove us to cars parked on the right side of a street. Though, admittedly, that could have been my mind playing tricks on me by being more vigilant than usual about my surroundings.

Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair has a different, but deeper, slant on Uber’s challenge from the robo-car. On the business side, Uber succeeds today by connecting cars (drivers) and passengers.  But what happens when someone else owns the car, and the service. And what happens to a society, like the USA and Canada, that is dependent upon cars, and car ownership for transportation and big chunks of GDP?  And what is the upshot when those vehicles, most of them currently idle and stored around 90% of the time, become much more effectively productive? Mr. Bilton digs into these ideas.

But back to Uber.

But if you think about it, Uber isn’t actually connecting passengers to cars. Instead, it is really connecting passengers to drivers. When those drivers are replaced by computers, Uber is a less important, and less valuable, middle man. Kalanick is fully aware of this reality. “We are definitely not building the cars,” he noted to B.I., “and I don’t know who is going to own the fleet.” That opportunity is open to a lot of other companies who are trying to not be erased by the approaching reality of autonomous vehicles. . .

. . . It seems that Uber is about to face the classic dilemma that stifles all big businesses as technology starts to attack them from the future: they must change in a way that eats away their core business, or someone else will. There are some businesses that can adapt quickly enough to the changes, and survive, and others that can’t. Steve Jobs was in the former camp when he released the iPhone in 2007, fully aware that it would kill the iPod, a core part of Apple’s revenue. In doing so, he was able to thrust Apple forward to become the most valued company in the world.