Episode 8: Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Subscribe in a reader

Transcript of Audio:

Hello and welcome back to Three Deviations Out!  After a short hiatus I am back!  A few weeks ago, we talked about how automation and AI will disrupt our education system and what needs to be done about it.  This week we’ll focus on one of the industries that will almost definitely be upended by technological integration: transportation.  Before we discuss planes trains and automobiles, a bit of news.  Three Deviations Out is now officially available in the Google Play store! Go download and subscribe to be in the know on all things outlier using the button below. Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @greaterthanxbar and connect with me on LinkedIn.  Finally, if you have a cool, society changing tech you think I should cover or you want to be on the show please don’t hesitate to reach out.  I would love to hear your ideas.

Autonomous everything seems to be a goal this year, and with partnerships and POCs galore the tech may accomplish that goal.  From as small as self-directed drones to as big as shipping tankers, automation would be a business win for the transportation and logistics industry, decreasing cost through personnel and error while being able to elevate humans to higher value tasks.  What those tasks will be, who knows.  But there will be tasks.

What: Self-driving everything, including autonomous consumer vehicles, shipping containers, steam liners, and personal helicopters.  Anything that gets you or your product from point A to point B without a human at the helm.

Who: Tesla, Google, Apple, Intel, NVIDIA, Ford, Toyota, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, Uber, Lyft, MIT, US Government, Auburn University, TARDEC, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Why: The average American spends almost 300 hours in a car each year.  In 2016, nearly 40,000 people in the US died in traffic related deaths.  Ninety-four percent of those and all other vehicle accidents considered serious were due to human error in decision making.  Just by influencing traffic accidents automated vehicles can already make our lives better.  But consumer automobiles is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of transportation and logistics.  From the heavy load automated trains in Australia to the automated flying taxis in Dubai, self-driving everything is dragging us humans into the 21st century those 1900-ers thought we would be having.

And that’s today’s thesis: Automated transportation of both humans and other cargo including autonomous semis, mini vans, cabs, helicopters, and oceanic vessels will rock one of the largest industries in the world changing both our socioeconomic and physical landscape.

Today we will cover:

  • The Industry
  • The Tech
  • The Partners
  • The Laws
  • The Use Cases
  • The Idealized World in Amanda’s Head

The Industry

 According to SelectUSA, a government effort to create business partnerships, the shipping and logistics industry accounted for 8% of United States GDP in 2015 and accounted for $1.48T in spending.  The American Trucking Associations projects that total land cargo shipments will amount to 15.2B tons of freight in 2017 and by 2028 that is expected to increase to 20.7B.  With the surge of ecommerce shipping is becoming particularly important.  Consumers expect goods quick with no hassle.  Last mile shipping is becoming of particular import, shown by Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods and WalMart’s even more recent acquisition of Parcel.  With blockchain partnerships allowing for more consistent and trackable supply chains overall, creating efficiencies through autonomy is just the next logical technical step.

As for the consumer auto market, 2016 marked the seventh straight year of year-over-year sales increases and total sales came in at 17.55M in the US. This is in a climate where the number of carless households is increasing and rideshare companies including Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar are gaining significant traction in large cities.  So not only are cars per household increasing, there is a gap in the market that needs to be filled for those who still have to get places but have no personal means of transportation.  Public transportation through autonomous vehicles will see a boost in efficiency and revenue generation as drivers are replaced and accidents avoided.  As seen in Taipei the initial cost of an autonomous vehicle will be considerably higher than traditional vehicles but total cost of ownership is expected to be substantially lower and as both manufacturing and transportation infrastructure catch up to the technology cost will go down as it does with all products on the maturity curve.

The Tech

Before I get into the technology of autonomous vehicles I will say up until the point I started researching I knew next to nothing about the technology of autonomous vehicles.  I saved writing this bit until last because I really had no idea what I was doing and was tremendously overwhelmed.  So, if you know more than I do about this, and that’s got to be a lot of people, feel free to educate me in the comments below or reach out directly via my contact page, Twitter, or LinkedIn.  Okay, let’s jump in.

In 2004 DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, began a number of challenges that kickstarted the autonomy movement of today.  Since then it’s been off to the races for autonomous tech spanning cars, tanks, semis, ships, trains, and planes.  Actual automation for vehicles dates back to well before then but the current era of technology is far and beyond the previous enough that it is almost a different species.  Autonomous vehicles use a combination of ultrasonic, radar, image, and Lidar sensors to see and react to what is going on around them.

  • Ultrasonic Sensors: Using sound waves, these sensors determine how far the vehicle is from another object
  • Image Sensors: Cameras on the vehicle work as its eyes to see the surroundings and some are even capable of 3D vision.
  • Radar Sensors: These work as another type of range detection, with waves responding to surrounding objects and reporting back.
  • Lidar Sensors: Lidar is able to map out the world around the vehicle using a low intensity laser.

In addition to sensors, autonomous vehicles require processors and software to interpret all that collected data.  While there are a number of software option available, often through a proprietary partnership with a technology firm like Intel, Microsoft, or Google, the go-to processors are built by NVIDIA.  Also a hardware player in the cryptocurrency game, NVIDIA has brought some specific contributions to the driverless market.  Because these sensors embedded in the vehicle are collecting so much data there needs to be a lot of processing power to analyze all of it quickly.  Unfortunately often what that means is having enough hardware to build another vehicle altogether, on top of the parts it actually needs to move.  The new Drive PX Pegasus turns that concept on its head.  The processor is about the size of a license plate and has the capabilities to support a level 5 autonomous vehicle.  We’ll get into exactly what that means in a minute but essentially, it’s a truly autonomous car.

The last piece of tech I want to touch on is the Internet and how that ubiquitous tool plays into this evolving industry.  Autonomous vehicles are connected to the Internet, which means they are connected to each other.  So in addition to being able to sense where things are around it, the vehicle is able to access data put out by other vehicles.  The more autonomous cars on the road or ships in the sea or plains in the air, the more efficient they’ll get because they’ll all be sharing data to make one another better.

The Partnerships

Lyft and Ford, Ford and Autonomic, Google’s Waymo and the National Safety Council, Uber and Tesla and endless more: the autonomous driving sector is ripe with high profile partnerships that make friends of would-be competitors.  As is the theory with other emerging tech trends and the open source movement in general, many heads are better than one.  This is especially true in a new sector that is merging two industries that have slowly been colliding for years.  Transportation has steadily become more technological and for years there has been software written directly into consumer and enterprise vehicles alike.  Autonomous transportation just ramps that trend up tenfold, requiring software, hardware, and mechanical giants to step up and work together in rolling these machines out across the globe.  As technology becomes more engrained, though, and deployment moves past the R&D phases expect consolidation with various partners purchasing departments of another partner’s firm to ensure consistency of vision going forward.  Imagine it as a more civil version of what Uber did to Waymo.  As is the way of business.

The Laws

21 states currently have enacted legislation in relation to autonomous vehicles and another five have executive orders regarding the emerging tech.  These laws are a hodge-podge of regulation about permits, testing locations, and the ability to take over for the vehicle.  As of last week, however, a federal bill has been passed by the Senate Commerce Committee that would allow self-driving car manufacturers to sell a specific amount of autonomous cars each of the next three years, given the vehicles meet standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  Now the bill waits on the Senate floor for approval while the House has already passed their version of the bill.  Currently the NHTSA defines 6 levels of automation:

  1. No automation whatsoever: This is that first car you got in college that you thought was so cool but actually it had roll windows and a tape deck.
  2. Driver assistance: This includes features such as brake assistance, backup cameras, and notifications when you get too close to the curb.
  3. Partial automation: Here cool features like lane assist and auto-parking start to work their way into your car.  I myself have not had the pleasure of using one of these.
  4. Conditional automation: This is the style of what we would call ‘self-driving’ car that we see on the road today. While you the driver still need to be around, you’re not actually doing much.
  5. High Automation: The only time you or I have to take over in a level 4 car is during situations like a good ol’ NorEaster or a full-on Hurricane Harvey.
  6. Full Automation: As we’ll see in a minute, this is the goal of the Mercedes Benz pod. These cars won’t even have brake pedals or steering wheels because they got this.

As we get closer to level four and five automation there will continue to be laws enacted around the technology, especially because it is so engrained in both our physical infrastructure and the revenue generating machine that is our government.  From the looks of things so far, generally government is on the side of automation and laws are making it easier, not harder, for manufacturers to create safer driving conditions.  I would like to see that trend continue but we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

The Use Cases

There are so many possibilities for applications of autonomous machines that I couldn’t possibly get into them all today.  Instead I’ve chosen to take one from planes, one from boats, and a few from automobiles.  That will give us a few more use cases that usual, but if you haven’t seen how gung-ho companies are about getting automated take a look through YouTube and you’ll see just how many option there are out in the world.

Waymo: While Uber was the first to bring automated rideshare to the public, Waymo is the first to bring a truly successful consumer product to testing and use in the real world.  On April 24, 2017 Waymo CEO published an article on Medium describing the company’s Early Rider program in Phoenix AZ.  This allows the public to apply to be some of the first consumers to test out Waymo’s autonomous vehicles.  Waymo started out as a moonshot project in Alphabet’s X subsidiary and became an independent company in 2009.  Self-driving testing has been going on ever since.  The fleet of cars by Waymo, Chrysler minivans driven by Intel software, has driven in excess of 3 million miles and eventually will reach level 4 or 5 autonomy which means no human intervention will ever be necessary.  Though this may still be a few years out, the prospect of a functioning fully autonomous fleet of taxis waiting at the beck and call of my smartphone is making me drool a little bit.

TARDEC:  TARDEC and Auburn University recently test drove a platoon of vehicles across the Canadian border and back.  This wasn’t just any platoon though, these were linked semi- to fully-autonomous vehicles that ranged in size from passenger vehicles to vehicle carriers.  In a bold move coming from a military unit, the partners recorded the entire trip, both from inside and outside the vehicles, and posted an edited version on YouTube.  Automated vehicles would go far in creating safer situations for soldiers both in cargo and mission situations while enabling more diverse strategies in varied terrain.  This is the first time the military has shown this technology to the public, and generally the assumption can be made that military technology is further along than what we consumers see in the commercial world, so I expect that what we see in this video is only the tip on the iceberg.

Mercedes Benz: Mercedes Bens has always been the height of consumer auto luxury.  That reputation is expected to extend to the autonomous vehicle market.  At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show the company unveiled the F 015 Luxury in Motion concept car, one that takes advantage of level 5 automation. The car features swivel chairs so during full autonomy passengers can face each other for card games and chit chat, classy wood flooring, 360 degree screens for a VR experience, and saloon-style doors.  Unlike the Chryslers in Waymo’s fleet, these Mercedes are more likely to be membership or coop vehicles where ownership is shared by a few individuals who can call on it as needed. Let’s just hope Becky and the fam aren’t hogging it for soccer practice and piano lessons 5 days a week.

HÆglund: HÆglund is a marine automation specialist operating out of Norway.  The company has outfitted numerous shipping tankers across the globe and a new project is working with Ektank and Utkilen to integrate linked automation systems into a fleet of 8 tankers.  This system will allow the ships to all ‘talk’ to one another, give greater insight through efficient data collection, and allow HÆglund to maintain 90% of updates and repairs remotely.  Ektank and Utkilen see these efforts as long-term cost saving, with greater efficiency and overall lifespan than those ships which are not integrated.

Passenger Drone: Dubai has made it a goal to be a fully integrated smart city in hopes to make its citizen’s lives happier and one step towards that goal is to build out a system of flying taxis to bring you anywhere you desire in an autonomous drone.  The city has partnered with a number of companies including Volocopter and EHANG to bring a new type of transportation to Dubai.  While the idea of flying people around in drones at the commercial level is fairly new, drone technology in its simplest form has been around since 1916 and is much further on the tech maturity curve than other emerging technologies seen being pursued in the market today.  The country’s smart city objectives are led by Dr. Aisha Butti Bin Bishr and aim to make the city the happiest on the planet.  Heck, you could be taking a flying drone taxi in the next five year – that makes me pretty happy!

The Idealized World

The biggest changes that autonomous vehicles will have on our daily lives is in the amount of time we have and the space we see around us.  Fully autonomous driving for all vehicles on the road means that road signs, traffic lights, and even lines on the road become irrelevant and will eventually become nonexistent.  There will no longer be the stresses of driving and road rage will be a thing of the past, we’ll all have to get our aggression out somewhere else.  And the time we will have.  I don’t know about you, but right now I spend 25 minutes driving to work each day for a total 50 minutes round trip.  If I could spend 50 minutes a day doing something else, like reading a book or learning French or catching up on some emails, my days would become a plethora of more productive.  Or maybe I just spend that extra 50 minutes taking a cat nap and be a little more pleasant in the office.  Either way, at the pure auto consumer level this means big changes.

Not only will I have more time, but the car I am in most likely won’t be mine.  Maybe I have a little extra cash and I’ve joined a car club, so me and 50 of my closest friends all subscribe to a certain number of different types of cars.  On my way to work I order a commuter car that may include a few other members who work close to my building.  Next week, though, I have to take a business trip a few hours away and for that I’ll order a sleeper car from the membership club that will show up at my house with a nice cozy bed inside of it and instead of killing myself driving through the night while trying to prep for that presentation in the morning I get a few hours of sleep and still have plenty of time to wow the audience.  Or maybe I don’t have a membership club so instead of paying an annual fee I order cars up like cabs and pay by the trip.  There are a lot of options that can start to come into play, but car ownership is out the door, unless you’re an enthusiast.

The final thing I’ll touch on is how much this will change industry and what that means for us consumers.  Mostly, it means things will be cheaper.  Error free and driver free shipping means dramatically lower cost of products, meaning lower prices and higher profit margins.  There will be a dramatic transition period here where we may see an entire industry go jobless or we will see a large union lobbying campaign combating the use of level 5 automation in shipping and transportation.  My bet is that eventually things will sway towards the autonomous because business will continually look toward the bottom line in a free market and this industry has a lot of cash flow to break down any legal barriers.

Thanks for joining me for another episode of Three Deviations Out! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  Next week we cover AI, robots, and the end of humanity as we know it.  It’s going to be a gas!  In the meantime, catch up on old episodes of the podcast, follow me on Twitter, and connect with me on LinkedIn.  Goodnight and Goodbye!


Listen on Google Play Music