Today Pizzabots, Tomorrow The Future: Autonomous Cars Coming Fast

Published in Online Spin, March 18, 2016.

I think we need a new word for “future.” When I hear people talking about “the future,” I usually make a couple of baseless assumptions: It’s in my lifetime, but far enough away that I don’t really have to worry about it. Maybe 20 or 30 years. Maybe more.

This tendency to arbitrarily assign a timeline can be misleading. If my assumption is wrong, my response will be too.

Self-driving cars are in the future. Artificial intelligence is in the future. Geoengineering is in the future.

Except all of these things are already in the present. What’s in the future is their widespread adoption, not the fact of their existence. And because of the nature of exponential technology, the future described by these advancements is likely much closer than we think.

Autonomous cars, for example, have already driven millions of miles. Tesla launched autopilot (yes, I’m aware it’s not fully autonomous) last year. And Google’s Chris Urmson estimates the company’s self-driving vehicle will be ready for the mass market some time between 2017 and 2020. Note that first date: it’s next year. That seems like a lot less “future” than the “future” I usually imagine.

Self-driving cars don’t even have to be cars. Just this week, Domino’s announced it will be testing autonomous pizza-delivery robots in New Zealand. And that is awesome, because we’re not replacing a human-powered car with an autonomous one; we’re replacing a human-powered car with a fit-for-purpose autonomous pod-like vehicle the size of a decent suitcase.

All of a sudden, the whole model shifts. All of a sudden, you don’t need things shaped like cars. You need fit-for-purpose vehicles with an appropriate cargo capacity, and it doesn’t really matter whether the cargo is pizza or you.

Think about it. How often do you use the SUV characteristics of your SUV? When’s the last time you loaded it up with people and suitcases and whatnot? When’s the last time you went off-road?

In the future, you won’t own a big vehicle just because you might need it on one or two occasions. You probably won’t own a car at all. Whenever you need one, you’ll order the vehicle you need at that moment -- most likely a pod for one, not much bigger than a pizzabot.

In the future. Doesn’t it feel far away? Doesn’t it feel like, “Order your self-driving car on demand” will affect your kids more than you? But autonomous cars are not very far away at all, and they most certainly will affect you.

You might think there are big barriers to adoption. A couple weeks ago, my Mediapost colleague Chuck Martin wrote that people aren’t that interested in self-driving cars. But the likes of Uber and Lyft have already trained us to push a button on our phones and have a vehicle appear as if by magic. For the right price, we won’t care or even notice if there’s a human behind the wheel.

The amount of time it takes for technology to reach mass-market adoption has plummeted. It took the airplane over 60 years to reach 50 million people. It took the iPod just three years. Once autonomous people-carrying pods hit the streets, once they’re faster and more reliable and cleaner and cheaper than the alternative, once you don’t have to worry about buying or maintaining one, once the decision is made for you and the pod just shows up when you order your Uber, how long do you think it’s going to take for self-driving cars to reach the 50 million mark?

It’ll happen -- some time in the future.