Has the Driverless Future arrived?

Ten days ago, journalist Ed Niedermeyer became one of the first people to have a trip in a genuinely driverless car on public roads without a nervous company demanding a non-disclosure agreement. Niedermeyer is no self-driving cheerleader. His work is well-researched, balanced and detached from the hype. My guess is that Waymo asked him as a display of their self-confidence.

There are currently hundreds of Waymo cars moving around the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, with thousands more on the way. The driverless future, it seems, is already here. Except that it isn’t. This technology is not an iPhone. It cannot just be bought and used. While for a few people in a limited area it may already be a reality, for most people in most places it will remain an impossibility for the foreseeable future. The people developing the tech are keen on announcing breakthroughs, which give some narrative zing to a story that has over the last year become a bit flat.

Oliver Cameron, the CEO of Voyage, is developing self-driving technology in a unique context. His vehicles are shuttling retirees on private roads around their purpose-built community – The Villages – in Florida.

I have admired Cameron since I heard him emphasise the value of a slow, responsible approach to technology development here. He has just published a discussion of what he sees as Waymo’s Rubicon-crossing ‘insane step forward’.

He thinks ‘we now live in a driverless world’. I’m worried he might believe it.

William Gibson had an adage:

‘The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’

Technological determinists like to invoke it when they claim new technologies are inevitable and just around the corner. They rarely acknowledge that the distribution of new technologies is perpetually uneven. Technologies tend in fact to follow what Robert Merton called the Matthew Effect: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.

Cameron knows that getting a self-driving car to work requires means getting the conditions right as well as smartening up the sensors and the software. Self-driving cars are unavoidably contextual. When talking about the progress of self-driving technology, Cameron is right to say ‘It’s a matter of where, not when’. There are circumstances in which the driverless future has been with us for a while. In London, the Docklands Light Railway was christened in 1987. It is relatively uninteresting because the conditions under which its automation works are so tightly constrained.

The future has arrived. (Credit: Flickr user SV1XV)

Waymo’s world is vastly more complex than the DLR’s, but it remains geofenced. The cars work because they know the roads and they know what to expect. Take a Waymo outside Phoenix and it becomes just another minivan. To get a genuine sense of the future, we need to ask why Waymo is in Phoenix, work out the conditions for the technology’s success (economic, political, meteorological, infrastructural and cultural) and ask where next? There will be places with wildly different conditions in which driverless technology will necessarily look very different, and countless more where the incentives for innovation will never line up.  

The definition and distribution of futures will not be straightforward. Cameron expects public scrutiny and does not shy away from it:  

‘There will likely be companies who abuse their responsibility to deploy this technology responsibly, making short-term decisions that may compromise safety.’

Following the recent revelations about the Uber crash (see my tweet thread is below), one can see the reputational risk.

However, if Voyage, Waymo and other developers want to innovate responsibly, they shouldn’t swallow their own exhaust. One can understand why innovators tell themselves

‘Fully self-driving technology is right… Fully self-driving technology is necessary.’

But they shouldn’t expect everyone else to agree. Public resistance may not be ‘a natural cycle that will one day pass’, as Cameron hopes. The futures that most of us experience will look very different from the ones imagined by technologists. They always are.

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