Robot Cars

  1. Robot-cars are hard – I’m now not sure it’s going to happen
  2. The end of ‘car-as-product’ — meet ‘transport-as-service’
  3. Car companies are in an arms race to get there first!
  4. Human driving illegal
  5. Use your driving rather than wasting it driving
  6. Regular bookings and special nights out
  7. Could robot-cars make traffic 5 times worse?
  8. We’ll get a third of the city back!
  9. The end of the fuel infrastructure ‘chicken and egg’ problem.

1. Robot-cars are hard – I’m now not sure it’s going to happen

So many futurist blogs were predicting we would simply have Robot-Ubers by now. They’re well overdue, and Elon has talked about how the learning rates for AI driving are slowing down. I’m not sure if this page is really required – nor am I counting on it. But here are some thoughts should Robot-Ubers ever materialise.

2. The end of ‘car-as-product’ — meet ‘transport-as-service’

“Have we reached peak car?”  asked The Guardian (April 2015), measuring the impact of suburban shopping saturation and the effects of the online shopping lifestyle. We already drive fewer car km’s per person, period.

But the biggest change will be car ownership. Imagine catching a taxi, but not having to pay the driver’s salary: just paying for a short hire of the equipment and some electricity. It might cost less than 10% of today’s human-driven taxis! Newsflash: all car companies are starting to take the robot-taxi model seriously!  They see the writing on the wall. It’s this simple — robot-taxis mean we’ll stop buying cars as products. Instead of a car that sits in a garage depreciating 95% of the time, we’ll just rent a super-cheap robot-taxi. It’s just hiring a piece of (very smart) equipment. This means:

“A robotic electric car could displace the usage of ten regular vehicles. This will also reduce the supply chain ramp-up burden. Instead of needing to make 2 billion electric vehicles, 200 million robotic ride-sharing vehicles would have the same displacement effect. Only 80 gigafactories instead of 800 would be needed to generate the displacement effect,”

3. Car companies are in an arms-race to get there first!

Because robot cars could shrink the car industry down to 10% of its current size, the car corporations are in an arms race to get there first and have some of that remaining, smaller pie. Being first is everything, as Facebook learned at the expense of Google+. This list documents some of the money invested and deals being done.

These are all the Corporations working on robot-cars (May 2017).


Don’t panic, of course if you’re a tradesman or other small business owner and you need to own your own vehicle for your business, you’ll still be free to do that. (I hope!) This is about the rest of us. Instead of driving in peak hour traffic, we’ll be snoozing, reading, or texting. And it will be so much safer and cheaper.

4. Human driving illegal, and other implications

Watch this piece by “The National” News (Canada).

5. Use your time instead of wasting it driving

The other implications are also pleasing. Imagine a robot car having a nice seat, and a decent fold out desk with a customisable screen your phone just syncs with. You can have a nap, catch up with friends on social media, answer emails, do some work, check your banking, or watch a movie. Robot-taxis let you use your time instead of wasting it!

 6. Regular bookings and special nights out

Your transport company will provide a phone app, on which you can set a variety of transport plans and preferences.

  • Daily commute settings will allow you to make a regular robot-car booking to work.
  • It could plan around train and ferry timetables as needed.
  • Alternatively, do you want a regular mini-bus to take you all the way into town, sharing the trip with locals to make it even cheaper?
  • Would your app even allow you to choose quiet mini-buses for work or naps, or social vans for conversations on the way to work?
  • Shopping: will you be accompanying lots of groceries home? Need a fridge section? Or a van or truck taking home some furniture?
  • Special events: Is it a special occasion and a stretched limousine is required?
  • A nicer time: Rather than starting your time out fighting for parking, and then stepping over that giant puddle of urine in the stairwell, the robot cab will chauffeur you to the loading bay directly outside your destination.
  • If you bump into friends and change your plans, you can just call the right sized van to collect you and take you on to that next restaurant or movie or home. It’s just a short conversation with your phone away.
  • Range anxiety is solved by robot-taxis.
    • First, a robot-taxi company like Tesla or Uber or Apple would be trading in reputation. They’d want the best batteries on the market. 
    • Second, if a car runs low on charge, it can stop and swap for a freshly charged vehicle. That’s the end of all ‘range anxiety’ right there!

7. Even long country trips are possible.

Imagine a family wants to take a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne. They have a suitcase each and are keen on seeing some of the sites. They pile into the robot-cab and off they go. No one is driving and missing out on the fun — they’re all joking about the latest social media memes and gaming on their phones. A few hours later the robot-taxi has burned through its charge, and the family needs a toilet break anyway. They’ve got a choice between 5 different stops before the car runs out of charge — do they want to take a break at the diner with the parrots, the little town with the historic attraction, or that highway spot with the roasted nuts? They choose the parrots. They pull up next to their replacement car and shift the luggage, and then go and enjoy a break. Their old cab drives out the back to charge and will serve new customers within an hour.  The point is once we have robot-taxis we can forget the limits of one vehicle. A whole daisy chain suddenly becomes viable, with all sorts of interacting possibilities built around natural human desires and limits.

8. Could robot-cars make traffic 5 times worse?

If we all own a robot-car and send it on multiple errands without us during the day — like having your own Personal Assistant pick up the dry cleaning or groceries — traffic could increase 5-fold! What do we do about that? Quick answer: price discounts for car sharing and hiring a mini-bus.

9. We’ll get a third of the city back!

As we have seen repeatedly on this blog (and the National News video above repeats), car-parks destroy city planning. Car parks take up about a third of all central business districts in American cities, spread the buildings and businesses and people further apart, are inefficient and expensive, and destroy walkability. They create cities built for moving cars, not moving people. Robot-taxis will invalidate the car-parking business model. Instead of manually driving into town and parking in a concrete highrise that stinks of urine, we will be dropped in luxury in the loading bay outside our destination. Our cars will then drive off to Uber up some more passengers and earn us money. Or maybe we didn’t own the car in the first place and it was a robot-taxi or Uber we hired off someone else.

Just as ice-haulers were put out of business by the invention of the fridge, city car-parks will be put out of business by the robot-taxi. There may still be robot-taxi charging carparks, but these will be outside the more expensive real estate of the Central Business District or could be deep underground somewhere. Parking towers and vast open parking lots will be a thing of the past. This will return a third of city real estate to developers. With a third of the land returned, we can convert those ugly car parks into homes and eco-apartments and businesses. This, in turn, raises the population density to the point where even robot-taxis will not cope with the traffic. Walkable, social neighbourhoods can replace traffic and isolation. It will raise the density of city cores, house more people on less land, and eventually require a new subway.  I love the irony that super-robot cars could create demand for more subways. It’s not about eliminating the car but domesticating it so that it cannot push its individualistic and isolating suburban town plan on us. We can have the best of both worlds: real walkable neighbourhoods using state-of-the-art subway systems and the convenience of a robot-car when you really need it.

10. The end of the infrastructure ‘chicken and egg’ problem.

If you are using robot-taxis and can ‘stop and swap’ any time a car runs out of juice, you don’t care about the traditional ‘chicken and egg’ fuel infrastructure problem at all. You’re hiring a car for the next 16 minutes, not spending $30 grand buying one for the next 16 years!

Remember the Catch-22 problem of the old ‘hydrogen economy’? Customers don’t want to buy hydrogen cars if there is no hydrogen highway, and corporations don’t want to build the hydrogen highway if there are no customers yet? This all fades into irrelevance when you are not going to buy a car ever again. When every autonomous car is a cab, we simply will not care what the car runs on or how it was recharged.

Indeed, robot cars will be working around the clock. They’ll burn out in a year or two, and be replaced. There will be a constant turnover of vehicles. We’ll always be hiring the latest thing! But if a company decides to change their batteries to hydrogen or even burning boron, who cares? You won’t care. If anything goes wrong, another taxi will be along to serve you. The company will know what the range is of their vehicles, and the cars will take bookings within that range. EG: If passengers are reaching the edge of that car’s special new fuel zone, it can stop and swap with another car running on the old standard. Whatever works. People might not even know they were in a trial vehicle. Robot taxi’s defeat both range anxiety and infrastructure anxiety. We are living in interesting times!

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