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The future of transportation: Self-driving cars? Try self-driving everything

Technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives. Once a week in The Future Of, we examine innovations in important fields, from farming to transportation, and what they will mean in the years and decades to come. 

Stroll around any CES (virtual or otherwise) in the last decade and it’s impossible to miss all the feels the tech industry has for transportation, self-driving cars in particular. Every major technology company has its fingers in cars, from the infotainment systems powered by Google and Apple to the operating systems driven by Blackberry and Linux to the components and circuits that make up the car itself, built by Qualcomm and Nvidia and NXP and a dozen more. (And don’t get me started about this Apple Car nonsense.)

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Sure, the technology crawls forward like a car in LA traffic, but will it speed up? Unfortunately, the self-driving vision of the future is more Jetsons than just around the corner. But that doesn’t mean autonomous tech is a waste of time: Self-driving planes, trains, and everything but automobiles are more or less here … and will shape your transportation in the near future.

Today: Self-driving cars are here … right?

At CES in 2015, Don Butler, executive director of connected vehicles for Ford, told me we’d have self-driving cars in five years. So … now, right? Clearly not. When it comes to autonomous cars, there’s been a sea change in attitude over just the past year. Today experts tell a very different story.

“Autonomy implies a kind of decision-making,” explained Marjory Blumenthal, Senior Policy Researcher at think-tank RAND Corporation and lead author of a study entitled Safe Enough. “And we don’t expect automated vehicles in the foreseeable future to be making that kind of judgment.”

Full Self-Driving

She’s hardly alone: Steve Shwartz, futurist, A.I. expert, and author of the book, Evil Robots, Killer Computers, and Other Myths: The Truth About AI and the Future of Humanity, told me in no uncertain terms that even with the smartest A.I., self-driving cars will never replace humans behind the wheel. He cites simple common sense; nobody actually teaches us to slow down when a ball rolls out across the street because a child might come out after it. Now think of the hundreds of scenarios that might lead to a child running out into a street. Will we train machines to recognize each one?

“Everyone assumes that the computer will do it better than humans.”

“Everyone assumes that the computer will do it better than humans. There’s no basis for that assumption,” Shwartz bluntly told me.

And don’t think we’re sitting around waiting for 5G to make it happen, despite what some networking companies argue. “You don’t need 5G for autonomous vehicles,” Lars Reger, Chief Technology Officer for chip giant NXP, told me recently. High-bandwidth 5G is hardly reliable enough today to bet your life on, much less your ability to download a movie at any good clip.

Tomorrow: The rise of autonomous everything

Peer into the distance and you’ll see a different story. Autonomy has transformed mobility across a variety of categories, and it’s only set to increase. Airplanes have essentially flown themselves for years, but that tech stopped and started in the highways of the sky. Last year, Cirrus and Garmin earned FAA certification for a system that can land a plane at the actual push of a button. Yep, autolanding just became a thing. It should transform the airplane industry in the next decade.

Given the current state of autonomous flight (and the lack of children rolling balls into the streets of the skies), it’s not hard to picture self-driving flying taxis. There are over a dozen flying taxis in development at present, from companies like Kitty Hawk and AeroMobil, but the one that seems most interesting comes from Cadillac, a seal of approval on the concept. GM’s surprise announcement at CES 2021 of a battery-powered short-range flying thing lacked details lack how fast it’ll travel and how much a ride will cost (and crucially, is it extra to swing by Starbucks?), but they’re easy to pencil in, given the autonomous flight systems that already exist.

GM electric flying taxi
An all-electric flying Caddy revealed by GM at CES 2021 heralds the future of transportation.

It’s a short leap from there to fully automated airplanes, especially given the recent advancement from Cirrus and Garmin. Airlines have been walloped by the pandemic and are struggling to find a business model that makes sense in the new future. Thousands of pilots have already been laid off — will more follow? The only real obstacle to a fully self-piloted fleet for Delta, United, and others is frankly the public-acceptance factor.

“Already, flight control could be completely automated,” said Tommaso Melodia, Director of the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things at Northeastern University, in a recent interview. But humans are the X factor, he noted. “I think a lot of people still feel like they want an additional degree of human interaction with a machine instead of relying completely on autonomous machines, but it’s going in that direction.”

Meanwhile, we’re already starting to see the rollout on corporate campuses of low-speed autonomous shuttles, something that will accelerate and quickly take over in the decade ahead. With a pre-planned route and some rudimentary obstacle avoidance systems, these are no-brainers (although they do have some brains). And while Amazon has yet to deliver the autonomous drone deliveries the company said it has been working on, I fully expect to see such systems in use within five years.

So your next Ford Focus might not be self-driving, but you’ll soon be able to receive supplies by drone ahead of your next vacation, and you can take an autonomous taxi to the airport for your drone flight to Mexico. And that’s even better, isn’t it?

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