UBER’S Latest Pilot Offers Free Rides

File illustration picture showing the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

Photo: All Rights – REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Files

Robots have arrived and they are sweeping citizens off of the streets of Pittsburgh! No, they didn’t arrive by flying saucer, these are UBER driverless cars, and a ride in a robot UBER is FREE! By the end of the month, UBER will launch its pilot program in Pittsburg. When you order a car, you decide if you want to try one of their 100 robot cars. Depending on demand, you may get a robot car or a regular car. If you do get a robot car, your ride is on UBER. Free taxi rides? Resistance really is USELESS!

Traffic laws vary from location to location and most are unclear on how to deal with driverless cars. That’s why UBER’s driverless cars will each have… a driver. For decades it has been legal to turn on cruise control and other “assistance” features. At least as long as there is a driver in the car. The latest car driving software is considered an extension of cruise control. Turn on all the options you like… as long as a driver remains in the car. But, remove the driver and who has legal responsibility? If there is an accident or a law is broken, does the ticket go to UBER or the car manufacturer? Who do you sue?

Today, it is illegal in all 50 states to drive without car insurance. But today’s insurance contracts don’t have clauses for driverless cars or are written so that it is not clear if they allow driverless cars. For a pilot, UBER can self-insure or negotiate a special agreement with just one insurance company. A national agreement with every insurance company will take more time.

The “driverless car with a driver” model will undoubtedly be used throughout the pilot, but it will still address two important issues. First, the public will become familiar with robot cars, and see they really do work. Second, UBER will collect enough real world data… up to 500,000 hours of driving data every month… to perfect the software their latest acquisition (Otto) provides.

UBER also announced a $300 million partnership with Volvo, to develop new driverless cars. Not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh pilot will use Volvo SUV’s that are fitted with special sensors and upgraded software. Soon, though, a driverless car will look very different from today’s vehicles.

As driverless cars evolve, the steering wheel, the driver’s seat and other features that are needed for a car to work, will no longer be needed. Removing this equipment allows manufacturers to dramatically redesign the car interior. Should all seats face each other? Do buyers want their car to be a conference room on wheels, with a work table? If buyers want a quiet work space, driverless cars might work best as electric vehicles. Autonomous cars may spawn a new category of car.      

Which explains this week’s Ford announcement. Ford said that it will release its own fleet of autonomous cars by 2021. If Volvo is releasing an autonomous car NOW, how can Ford wait until 2021? The answer is that Ford is talking about a different type of vehicle. The 2021 target is for a consumer level vehicle, the complete redesign we just discussed, without a steering wheel or driver’s seat. The Volvo will, obviously, still have the old equipment. Other firms may show up in the near future that offer autonomy retrofits to existing vehicles. However, because some journalists confused these two types of vehicles they misunderstand how quickly self-driving cars will impact employment. Let’s set the record straight!

Here’s the misunderstanding. If Ford releases self-driving cars in 2021, then by 2025 there should be many self-driving cars. So, a lot of cars and trucks and other vehicles will convert by 2030. That gives us 15 years to absorb the changes this technology brings. This is a reasonable schedule,based on 20th-century assumptions. Especially the assumptions of how quickly “Detroit” (remember when that meant the car industry) can adapt and put out a new type of car.

However, all of those numbers are about consumer cars.  Consumers are interested in self-driving cars but are not demanding it. Still, fewer consumers have a clear vision of what makes a great self-driving car. Firms that employ professional car and truck drivers will make use of these cars when they arrive, but they are not waiting for these vehicles. By the time Ford sells its first “true” self-driving car, most professional driving jobs will have been replaced by robots.

Companies like UBER and Lyft will be first movers, doing whatever they can to adopt autonomous cars. There is a massive financial advantage to eliminate the cost of drivers. There is also the matter of UBER’s losing battle to classify drivers as “non-employees”. UBER attempted to settle the matter for $100 million, but that has been rejected by an appeals court. The pilots started in 2016 will expand in 2017, and may involve more than taxis and private cars.

After UBER? Big trucking firms cannot hire enough truckers, and the gap is growing, driving up wages. In order to keep up with the work, overworked drivers are making bad decisions that burn more fuel, cause excessive wear and tear on the vehicles, and cause sometimes fatal accidents. These companies are VERY motivated to get driverless vehicles on the road.

Without the cash reserves of UBER, trucking firms will rely on a combination of retrofitting some trucks, while replacing the oldest vehicles with the latest autonomous trucks. Expect transportation firms to fill the “driver gap” with thousands of autonomous trucks in 2018 and 2019.

Then there’s Fedex and UPS. Eventually, Amazon and other Internet merchants may steal work from trucking firms when air-drones are available, but let’s assume that we still have a few years before that happens. By 2019, if not sooner, some changes will have been implemented to traffic laws and insurance. Not every vehicle will be autonomous, but package delivery services will have pilots underway and some of these vehicles running on live routes.  

Small and medium sized companies will still own millions of old style trucks and company cars.  These firms may continue to use these cars, buy their own driverless cars, or… order vehicles from UBER on demand. Making a large number of consumers and small businesses give up their dedicated vehicles for shared vehicles on demand is a HUGE part of UBER’s $60 billion valuation. It’s hard to predict how this will impact employment in America, but it will certainly speed up the movement to replace drivers. By 2019, every small business in America will be at least thinking about whether they should replace the company truck.  

In 2016, robots will drive real passengers around Pittsburgh before the end of the summer. After that, it’s just a question of how quickly autonomous vehicles spread through the US, and the world. Ford’s target of 2021 for a self-driving car is reasonable, but not groundbreaking. When Ford is ready to enter the autonomous car market, it is likely to be crowded with Ford’s traditional competitors, as well as new players (such as Apple and Google). And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Robots, Outsourcing, & The 2016 Election

2016 Elections

Future generations will look back with disbelief on the 2016 Presidential elections. It is historic not only because the Democrats have a woman as their candidate, but also because the Republicans have the Trump as their candidate. Love him or hate him, Trump has made this the most closely covered election of all time. Daily reporting is filled with political mistakes, gaffs, non-sequiturs and nearly unprintable accusations. Yet, there are real political issues on the table. What is truly surprising, is that in between the sniping, big labor issues are on the top of the list of issues for both parties.

For years, if not decades, labor has been on the backburner in American politics. Since NAFTA was passed in 1992, globalization… expanding global markets by bringing down tariffs and barriers to international trade… has bee the expected sure for all labor ills. The theory was that poorly paying jobs would migrate to low paying countries, while high-income countries would replace these positions with new high-paying jobs. The theory is simple, just not very accurate.

Overall, world income has improved. Beyond that, there is little agreement as to what Globalization is doing to America and to the world. Globalization has brought new profits and money into the US, but reduced taxes on the wealthy and greater use of offshore tax shelters has kept new wealth concentrated in a relatively few hands. Globalization achieved the goal of expanding the economy, but the combination of automation and offshore workers (and a collapse of the global economy) greatly reduced the bargaining power of workers, undercutting the mechanisms that previously “spread the wealth” in America. As a nation, America has prospered, but the gap between the very wealthiest and the least educated, lowest paid American’s has widened. In both parties, this gap is a core driver of the most dedicated segments of the electorate.

Globalization achieved the goal of expanding the economy, but the combination of automation and offshore workers (and a collapse of the global economy) greatly reduced the bargaining power of workers. The mechanisms of capitalism that previously “spread the wealth” in America, were undercut, if not simply eliminated. As a nation, America has prospered, but the gap between the very wealthiest and the least educated, lowest paid American’s has widened. In both parties, this gap (real or percieved) is the core driver for the most vocal parts of the electorate.

There have always been, and always will be, a degree of inequity in the economy o even the most egalitarian nation. The current movement can be traced back to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in 2011, the “One Percent” movement that continued growing in the following years, the rise of Bernie Sanders in 2015 and finally the adoption of One Percent rhetoric in Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Platform. Trump has different supporters, with different issues, but the underlying demand to solve the new inequality is pretty much the same.

Clinton and Trump use different language when they talk about most issues. Certainly, they have different experiences with labor policy. Yet, both sides have at least partially abandoned their party’s positions and have developed startlingly similar views on labor and outsourcing issues. For the first time in a very long time, both the Republican and Democratic candidates are largely in agreement about what we will see in 2017.  

Globalization: Clinton and Trump both say that mistakes were made with the NAFTA agreement in 1992. They also agree that the 21st-century equivalent… the TPP… is flawed and should not be approved. Clinton might change rather than outright reject TPP, but Trump supports reject the agreement in full. That’s a very, very difficult pill for Republicans to swallow. Globalization has been their economic cornerstone for the last 30 years.   

Minimum Wage: Clinton and Trump both agree that wages are too low. Clinton originally supported an increase to $10 per hour, and more recently moved to adopt Bernie Sander’s $15 per hour position. Trump originally rejected a Federal minimum wage increase, but later moved to $10 per hour, with the provision that the state (rather than the Feds) should enact that change. Before the election, Trump’s position may evolve further and merge with Clinton’s proposal. Clearly, supporters on both sides are pushing their candidates to improve working conditions for America’s lowest paid workers.

However, we are at an inflection point in labor. Outsourcing and new automation technologies are ready to replace domestic workers. Many entry level positions… such as fast food workers and cashier operators… are teetering on the edge of automation today. Many employers say that a higher minimum wage would immediately force them to replace workers with automated kiosks. Of course, still more employers and experts say that these jobs will eventually be automated regardless of the minimum wage.   

Outsourcing: Trump has gone as far as to say that he will stop all outsourcing, which is a 180-degree turnaround from his party’s former position. However, he hasn’t laid out how this would be accomplished. Clinton, seems generally opposed to outsourcing, but has been far less vocal and in the past has stated that the US has benefited from outsourcing.  

A.I.s & & Robots: Neither candidate seems to be aware of the looming disruption from the latest automation technologies. This disruption will impact the U.S. economy during the next Presidential term, and continue through at least the following term. Experts tell us that these technologies will impact the America’s workforce harder than all previous outsourcing. On the positive side, these technologies might take work that was previously offshored and return it to domestic shores. However, when work returns to America, it will return to a “lights-out” factories with few employees.

Self-driving trucks, lights-out factories, and robots replacing humans in the most dangerous jobs in America will be a massively important issue for Trump’s supporters, even if they don’t know it yet. Still, barely a word has been said by either candidate on their plans to deal with this issue. Both parties may avoid developing a position for this election, but the next President of the United States will be faced with the impact of new technology as soon as 2017.  At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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The 2016 Gold In Outsourcing Goes to…

Olympics 1960

For decades the Olympics were dominated by the U.S. and Russian teams. Lately, China has successfully fought to stay in the top 3, dominating weightlifting, diving, and gymnastics. China just might finish with the most gold medals in 2016. Meanwhile, the competition for the top spots in outsourcing hot! Which countries are on the rise? Which are winning the most contracts? Let’s take a look and see who will win the Gold in Outsourcing!   

The two nations that dominate the competition are India and China. Since the start of the 21st Century, both countries have been battling it out for the offshoring Gold. In this case, that “gold” isn’t just the top position. The global market for just IT outsourcing is estimated as being worth between $100 and $300 billion dollars. Now THAT’S real gold!

That’s also a pretty wide band of estimates. What do the judges have to say about that? Well, the IT outsourcing market is one of the most developed, existing long before outsourcing was a “thing”. It’s not just one market. Instead, there are multiple overlapping markets: pure outsourcing, jointly owned outsourcing programs and every other model you can think of. It is like comparing sprinting to marathon running, and deciding who you should keep on the list of top contenders. In any case, it’s a very big and growing list.

Here’s a list of some of the top contenders in outsourcing today…     

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: India takes the Gold. China takes the silver, performing just slightly behind India. After that, the Bronze is open. Malaysia, Thailand the Philippines or Vietnam might take the Bronze, but Brazil is also a contender. Brazil also has two special advantages for US projects. 

First, Brazil has many time zones that match the US, making day-time support far easier than it is for Asian competitors. Also, few of these countries have developed a late night culture. In India, even after decades of outsourcing, few people want to work late at night due to lack of transportation and places to eat. Women find it even harder, because of cultural resistance to women working at night. The cultural similarity between the US and Brazil can overcome many of the traditional drawbacks of offshoring.

MANUFACTURING: China wins the Gold hands down! But… the competition is tight for the silver and bronze. Countries like Vietnam are draining away outsourcing contracts from China by offering workers with even lower wages. Even China is now outsourcing a growing amount of its own work to Vietnam.

China’s greatest advantage is not that they are the biggest manufacturing outsourcer, it is that they are the world’s biggest manufacturer. This combination makes them an incubator for new ideas in manufacturing technology. To keep both titles, China needs to move from manufacturing and assembly work that uses the lowest cost workers to being manufacturers of high-end work that produces the world’s most productive workers.  

CALL CENTERS: The Olympic games have changed over time. New sports were added, and outdated competitions were removed. Baseball, club juggling, and tug-of-war were once top Olympic competitions. Call centers may go the way of Olympic tug-of-war, as automation enters its final stage. 

In the 1980s, technology replaced operators with “Press one for this and two for that”. That tech was replaced (and supplemented) with offshore operators, and then sales and support teams became part of these offshore centers.

Today, the technology in a call center starts with a computer that engages users in spoken conversations or text. Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) then takes over to understand what the user wants and uses a database of information to provide an answer (and more A.I. to go beyond simply regurgitating a set answer). 

By the next summer games in 2020, most offshore call centers will either have shut down or will develop a plan to shut down. The call center as we know it will soon be just another set of applications running on a server.

KNOWLEDGE WORKERS: Knowledge workers are sort of the Triathalon athletes of outsourcing. The triathlon covers the major forms of human powered movement: running, swimming, and cycling. Knowledge work covers the major forms of business decision making: analysis (legal and financial), argumentation (selection of the best options), and writing (news articles, legal documents, industry studies, management reports). 

Unlike previous waves of outsourcing, knowledge workers are higher paid positions, often including lawyers, financial analysts, bankers, reporters, managers, and writers. The Gold medal goes to… Artificial Intelligence and robots! Which country will win this competition? It m not be any country. Instead, this technology allows you to outsource from any location.

Work may return to the US, but knowledge work positions may be converted into a service. That service could be performed by traditional outsourcing firms, or a new generation of service providers may arise to perform this work. The replacement of knowledge workers is a tremendous outsourcing opportunity, but it is also a potentially disruptive technology that may shake up outsourcing.      

The players are out in the field and they are about to blow the starting whistle! Do you know your players? Have you chosen your winners? Some competitions are easy to call, and different specialties have some very strong players, but the rise of new technologies is slowly eroding the advantages that individual countries used to have. 

Competitions will always have winners and losers, but soon we may stop counting the winners by country. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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The 2016 Summer Outsourcing Olympics!

Olympics Rio

Every four years athletes from around the world gather to compete and, the best of the best are awarded medals for their efforts. In the summer games, we find out who can run the fastest, jump the highest, lift the most weight and throw and kick the farthest. There are individual contests and team events, but every nation wants to share in the glory when their citizens win a medal or set a world record.

In the world of outsourcing, it’s not that different. Just like the Olympics, we’re all out there competing and every outsourcing team is willing to do whatever it takes to come out on top. However, when it comes to ahhh … enhanced performance… outsourcing and the Olympics part ways. Olympic contestants are tested daily to make sure that they aren’t using any artificial enhancements to boost performance. In outsourcing, we’ll use every tech booster we can get!

The 2016 Olympics started off with the greatest number of expulsions due to performance boosting ever, with 100 Russian athletes banned. Almost certainly, other athletes will be banned before the Olympics conclude. Newer drugs keep being developed and new techniques are found to beat the latest tests. There’s even talk about easing up on testing since some techniques, like storing and re-using your own blood, aren’t exactly “artificial” boosts.

It used to be that countries had natural advantages in specific sports. Countries with a lot of snow often dominated the Winter Olympics. European countries dominate equestrian sports. That’s not surprising given that these events are based on European traditional competitions. But, when an individual or a team that was not a top contender suddenly starts winning all of the gold medals, well…  the judges get suspicious. 

While it makes a lot of sense to ban boost in the Olympics, in outsourcing it makes sense to use as many new technologies to boost performance as possible. If it’s manufacturing or credit card processing, automation makes outsourcing work better. Now, with the latest forms of automation and artificial intelligence, the natural advantages of each country may not be as important. The latest technology is upsetting the “natural order” of outsourcing, as new contenders can adopt technology that makes them dramatically more productive. Or, work that was once assumed to stay offshore forever… like heavy manufacturing… may be returned to domestic shores.

Who’s going to win the Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the outsourcing Olympics? Come back and get the latest results on the competition, and let’s see if there are any new world records or upsets. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!


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It’s A Pokemon World

PokemonI don’t want to play Pokemon GO. Really, I don’t. As a confirmed geek I have some interest in any tech. Pokemon GO is the first Augmented Reality (AR) game that is an international hit, so I am a tiny bit interested. Mostly, I write about A.I. and robotics, especially autonomous cars, and I’ve been wondering if popular AR apps are going to be the next big cause of auto accidents. And that’ show I ended up meeting friends at New York’s Central Park to play “GO” in the rain.   

We met just across from the entrance on 59th street, by a big gold statue of a man on a horse. The statue is on an island in the middle of traffic, and today it was standing room only as hundreds of people wandered on and off of this tiny island. Why the crowd? Because this was where beacons were dropped, to attract Pokemon monsters, the little critters that everyone runs around trying to capture. Deeper into the park, there are more  beacons. The goal is to capture a lot of Pokemon, and later train them. All of this running around gives you points, pretty simple!

Looking around in every direction, there are GO players as far as the eye can see. These players, shall we call them, “Go-Nuts”, are mesmerized by their phone screens, wandering unsteadily through traffic and occasionally doing a fist pump (must have caught something good). My first thought is, “Whooeee, someone is gonna get killed!”  

Surprisingly, no one (that I know of) was injured. You can see how AR to play in parks. Even though GO is mostly about walking around, a lot of articles are pointing out the health benefits, and the opportunity to socialize. The next hit game will probably move it up a notch and have some running and jumping. Considering that when Central Park was first built, the BIG activity of the day was the Promenade. You would get dressed in your best clothing and walk up and down, in areas meant for walking up and down. That’s the Mall through the Bethesda Terrace, should you feel a Promenade coming on. Just the same, I think you’ll prefer Pokemon GO.    

Well, by the late afternoon, thunderstorms had soaked the park, but the Go-Nuts wouldn’t leave.  I’m told that GO has monsters that only show up at night, so the game is aware of day and night. Maybe the next upgrade will weather forecasts so that Go-Nuts can, you know… get out of the rain?  

When will motorists start playing AR games? Wouldn’t that be incredibly dangerous? YOU BET IT WOULD! Drivers have used every type of app while driving, so AR will be next. Think back to when cell phone first became affordable. Everyone was driving and talking on their phones. After years of debate, legislation was passed against using your phone while driving. When texting became big, people drove and texted, leading to deadly crashes. Then it was selfies while driving. AR will be the next in a long list of driver distractions that eventually led to fatalities. Even if drivers are banned from using AR games, players on foot will be a terrifying new addition to neighborhood traffic.

Pokemon GO has been so successful that the value of the parent company, Nintendo, rose $17 billion in value in just over a week. The success of GO will lead to a flood of new Augmented Reality apps that blend computer data and images with the real world around us. AR is a new distraction for drivers that will lead to new accidents and almost surely, new fatalities. At least, as long as humans are behind the wheel.

Distracted driving is a killer… literally. We keep coming up with new ways to distract ourselves, and the price of distraction is very high when it comes to driving. Little by little our cars are becoming robots, and 2017 could be the watershed year when autonomous cars make a real impact on impact on the number of traffic accidents. American’s are now so distracted, tired and in a rush that we really do need games like Pokemon GO to relax. But not when we drive! We need to support the legislation needed to allow cars to be fully autonomous. We’ll all be a bit less stressed, and fun summer fads won’t turn into tragedies. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Trumping the Danger of Outsourcing…


Copy Cat

Photo by Andreas.


The Trumps just can’t make up their minds about outsourcing! While the Donald says he wants to stop America from outsourcing, he just can’t seem to stop himself. Or his wife, Melania! Earlier yesterday, Melania told NBC’s Matt Lauer that wrote she whole speech herself (“with as little help, as possible”) Yet, some of the wording looks suspiciously like a speech by Michelle Obama. As we say in outsourcing, “Never outsource your core!” We also say, “outsource without the right partners, you might see your mistakes on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.” Hmmm… looks like Melania is learning this the hard way!

For a high-stakes speech, it makes perfect sense to give the task to a professional writer. I’m not sure who they picked, but the Trumps might have been better off using fiverr or gighours. Just to be sure that your writer doesn’t take any short-cuts, you might also want to use a good anti-plagiarism tool. Grammarly and other on-line services quickly find if sections of your document have been “re-cycled” from earlier speeches.

The speech issue was a blessing for the Trumps, because the press forgot about Melania’s dress, which was designed and manufactured offshore in Slovenia. You can see why Melania might want to promote a designer from her home country. But is a “Make America Great” rally the best place to showcase Eastern European fashion??

The day after the speech, the amount of help Melania had to do the writing (according to a campaign aide) had swelled to a full “team”. Are we making too much of this? Shouldn’t we give Melania the benefit of the doubt? It  could be a one in a million coincidence. Melania might have written from the heart, and just came up with the same words as Michelle Obama. Could it be that the Trumps and the Obamas are basically the same? Could Melania and Michelle really want the same thing for America, after all?

Not at a Republican Convention… stick with plagerism! Don’t expect an apology to the American people or an explanation from Melania. I wonder if Melania’s pre-nup limits how many times she can speak to the press? Do expect an explosive attack from the Donald soon. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Beyond UBER: Planes, Trains and Helicopters Go Autonomous

CrashOver the past few months, we’ve discussed UBER’s need to turn their growing fleet of cars into an army of robots. UBER is under huge pressure to become profitable, and their quickest path to the greatest profitability is through autonomous cars. But UBER is not alone. Every form of transportation is turning towards some form of autonomous driving. Increasingly, though, the motivation (at least publicly) is not just profit. Robot ships, planes, and trucks are SAFE ships, planes, and trucks.

Individually owned cars will definitely benefit from self-driving cars. However, drivers are not actively demanding autonomy. Most car buyers think of autonomy as a luxury feature, not a safety device.

Even so, there are some individual groups that should start thinking about safety. Do you have a teen who will soon get their driver’s license?  Are they asking for their own car? Do you own an expensive new car that is a little too good to hand over to a new, inexperienced driver? An account with UBER might be a better option than handing your kid the keys. What about your parents or grandparents? Have health issues diminished their ability to drive? An autonomous car could extend their ability to live independently for years to come.  

Coalitions for Autonomous Cars are being formed by car manufacturers, technology firms, and transportation firms. Their mission is to make Americans aware of the high cost of our car-centric culture. For example, every year in America there are 35,000 automotive deaths, and four million accidents, plus a half a trillion dollars for hospitalization, car insurance, and vehicle repairs. That’s a very high price, and a very powerful argument for getting as many autonomous cars on the road, as soon as possible!

The trucking and transportation industry is aware of even more reasons for autonomous cars. They realize that autonomous vehicles open up possibilities for much higher profits. The cost of the extra equipment to make a vehicle autonomous would be paid off in a few months, at most, for a heavily utilized truck. These savings don’t just come from eliminating truckers from the payroll. Robots, you see, drive differently from human beings.

Unless someone tampers with their programming, robots must always obey the law, and must follow the instructions they are given. Human truckers are only loosely bound to the law and instructions from the Boss. Truckers routinely drive over the speed limit, and intentionally break the law.

Because humans must eat and sleep, they must also make compromises with delivery schedules. An unscheduled nap on a long trip may require speeding to make up lost time. Not taking that nap may cause an accident, especially if the driver is unlucky enough to be speeding through a patch of bad weather. Good drivers are motivated by profit, and want to complete a job as quickly as possible and then pick up the next load. Unfortunately, start, stop driving isn’t very efficient. Fuel is the largest cost for trucking (about 39%), followed by the cost of the driver. A robot driver that never sleeps, drives at a steady rate maximum rate, and almost never gets into an accident would save a trucking firm a LOT of money. A human driver could try to drive like a robot, but human emotions… getting angry at other drivers, panicking when you’re late, and other all too human reactions… would make most humans poor copies of real robots.

Business owners clearly have their foot on the gas for autonomous vehicles, but Federal and local government officials are standing on the brake. Today, it’s perfectly legal for a U.S. citizen to turn on an (approved?) autonomous driving system. After all, drivers have been using cruise control, automated parking, collision warning and automated braking for years. There is no problem if a driver turns on these features, and takes their hands off the steering wheel.

However, there is a problem when the car has no driver. Lawyers, judges and insurance companies aren’t quite sure who is responsible for the car when it’s driving itself. Car manufacturers could just throw a robot driving system into an existing car design, or they could do something revolutionary. They could throw out the steering wheel, get rid of the driver’s seat, and have all the passengers face each other. A sedan could be turned into an office on wheels, or maybe a bedroom when the office is hours away. A new class of cars would be the biggest thing to happen to the auto industry since the SUV.

But there may be even more going on in the air, than on the ground. Think about every flight you’ve been booked on that was cancelled or delayed. If your plane waits on the tarmac too long, or when your flight crew racks up enough hours, the plane goes back to the terminal and the flight is cancelled. Of course, the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 makes us ask ourselves new questions about the reliability of human pilots.

While big jets have the same semi-autonomous features (such as autopilot) as premium cars, these jets have not yet sold seats for autonomous flights. It will be phased in, perhaps starting with short distance connecting flights, or perhaps air cargo will lead the way, but it will happen. Just this week autonomous planes took another major step closer, as a commercial helicopter took a 30-minute flight in Connecticut.

Trains are a very mature form of transportation, but even trains have slowly added autonomy features. Today, whenever we have a train wreck, whether is it a cargo or a passenger train, news stories instantly ask, “Why didn’t the train have a computer to limit its speed, slow it before a turn, or slam on the brakes before the wheels left the track?” The next question is often, “Where was the driver?” Or, “How COULD the driver text, while the train was in a high-speed turn?” The same bad judgement and inattention that car drivers exhibit are being seen in train accidents.

Which raises a very interesting question, “Rather than a piecemeal approach to making trains more automatic, and safer… why not go all the way and install a robot driver?   

We’ve reached the tipping point, and autonomous vehicles are inevitable. Will they take over tomorrow, or at some time in the far future? I’d bet on a rapid implementation! Yes, there are piles of money to be made by replacing human drivers with robots, and the average American consumer will be the beneficiary as transportation costs drop by hundreds of billions of dollars. Even more importantly, tens of thousands of American lives will be saved every year (and many more crippling accidents avoided) as robots replace human drivers. Expect to hear lots more about the life savings benefits of autonomous vehicles… at least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

Don’t agree? Have other opinions? Share your opinions and ideas about autonomous cars and vehicles here! I’m listening, tell us what you think!   


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