The death of Elaine Herzberg, the woman hit by a self-driving Uber car in Tempe, Ariz in March, was an awful tragedy. Uber and other major players such as Toyota and AI-chip maker Nvidia were right to suspend tests of self-driving vehicles on public roads until a full investigation of the accident was completed. But Herzberg’s death was not a reason for the autonomous driving community to go into a bunker, but exactly the opposite. The mammoth challenge of making autonomous travel safe requires thousands of points of decentralized innovation by lots of companies instead of a few points of innovation by centralized big-auto/tech.
In particular, we need more developers to get busy addressing the innumerable corners of a market that’s expected to reach $800 billion by 2035. Technology history shows us that many groundbreaking technologies — the PC, the browser, the smart phone — don’t really change the world until developers figure out ways to make them useful in the real world. Not only do developers dream up applications of that technology — say, Oracle’s database, Amazon’s online store, or the millions of iOS apps — but they increase utilization of the technology by getting it into more peoples’ hands. All major technological disruptions have spawned periods of exuberant invention. The more companies scrap to win even the most localized or specialized use cases — say, self-driving pizza delivery carts for college campuses — the more actual people will try actual services, and the faster those services will improve and those use cases will develop.
Yet somehow the prevailing mood about autonomous transportation is that this technology is not mature enough to support a vibrant ecosystem of financially-successful developers. We seem to be stuck in a kind of holding pattern with well-funded giants dominating the headlines. However, my own belief is that no amount of in-house vertical development by Google, Detroit and other giants will create this industry for us. Rather, you’ll probably get a ride home from the office from some local self-driving taxi service, or have the groceries delivered by whatever delivery bot service has the contract with your local grocer. If a centralized model was the answer, why haven’t Google, Uber and others expanded beyond a handful of cities?
Now is in fact a great time for developers to step on the gas pedal. Incredible progress has been made in building the technological infrastructure on which a vibrant developer ecosystem can bloom. Again, consider history. The PC was a curiosity until Microsoft and Intel delivered their operating software and microprocessors to market — and more importantly, created the platforms that allowed everyone from Compaq and Dell to Lotus 1–2–3 and Quicken to easily build on their “Wintel” standard. The Internet boom couldn’t have happened without faster modems, fiber-optic networks and the near ubiquity of the home PC. You get the point.
Well, much of the infrastructure that is essential to build a company around autonomous driving now exists, or will soon enough. Some examples:
Cars — None of the big car companies have chosen to focus on building an autonomous car platform that developers can tweak for their particular needs — but they aren’t stopping developers from doing it themselves. And companies such as AutonomouStuff are there to help. Like a prime contractor, the rapidly growing company cobbles together the right hardware and software to create a custom autonomous vehicle, whether it be a golf-cart or an 18-wheeler cab.