Welcome to episode 141 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world, the design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hey, Dirk. Today, we’re going to go on a technology trend spotting journey.
I can’t. We’re going to see what we can see. We’re going to be discussing the future of transportation and logistics. In particular, see where emerging technologies and more traditional industries are starting to overlap, I think there’s always something interesting happening at the inner sections there. Let’s start first with supply chain automation and autonomous trucking. When I saw that Mercedes Benz was developing a self-driving truck called the Actros that they’re claiming as more safe, more efficient for long distance cargo transport, that really opened up a new view for me because in our discussions in the past for self-driving cars and the way it’s been portrayed in the media and my mental model for that was always around the passenger vehicles, cleaning up commuting in big cities.
To me it was never about the transportation and logistics industry which is really the life blood of this country when you think about all the goods that are coming in and going out, whether it’s going to Europe, coming in from China. The trucking industry and also the railways are what connect the tissue of our economy together. This idea that there could be autonomous trucks, self-driving trucks that could be not subject to getting tired like the driver does, or all the human errors that might result in accidents. That seems like a really wonderful area of course, it also begs the question “what do the truckers do and what does the trucking industry do.”
Going back to our conversation from before.
That’s not 30% of their job, that’s a 100% of their job.
The Mercedes Benz demo video that I saw, actually does have, the driver is still in the car, but for periods, they’re letting the car run itself. It’s an autopilot type thing that’s using this forward facing radar and some cameras to make sure that the truck stays on the road and presumably they can be doing other things at that time. It introduced the problem of maybe the human factor in there is getting drawn out of there. Then secondly, we’ve also introduced the idea that there’s the possibility of other work to be done in the cab. Which I don’t know, maybe they’ll just fall asleep or maybe they’ll get to drive all night, right?
Yeah. The 24 hour clock on the driving seems like an obvious one.
Right. In which case, maybe they’ll stop only less frequently because they’re not going to be stopping over quite as often. What’s your impression of this possible future of the autonomous truck? I mean, I always get nervous just driving next to your regular 18-wheeler on the Mass Pike. What’s your take on this, Dirk?
I read something some months ago about a review, or I don’t know if it was a review or if it was an engineer talking about it. I’m talking about the Google self-driving car project.
The point that they made is that the self-driving cars would result in possible traffic mishaps because they were essentially the only one on the road following the rules of the road. The self-driving car at this point in the evolution of the technology is very good at following the letter of the law. However, us humans don’t follow the letter of the law.
Complicating matters is we don’t follow it in a multitude of ways.
Some of us are breaking it in some ways and some of us are breaking it in others. The self-driving car behaving as it should, would lead to mayhem because nobody else is expecting that car to be driving the way it should. These are things that will get solved but right now that’s where we’re at, right?
It complicates the implementation of these things.
Right. That’s an interesting cultural and sociological observation because when I was learning to drive, and still all the time it’s about anticipating what other people are going to do on the road.
Your ability to put your foot on the gas and your hand on the wheel is only like, what, like less than half of what it takes to drive.
The rest of it is like anticipating things, figuring out where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do and having that cynical view point or not cynical, depending on the way you look at things like “oh is this guy going to cut in front of me, am I going to step on the gas here, am I going to go faster than I should because I need to be somewhere on time or earlier or whatever?” There’s all of these cultural mores, right? Driving is self-expression in some ways. The way people drive reflects something about that.
Absolutely, unconscious self-expression.
Sure, and we all know, we get in the car with our friends and we know how they’re going to drive, we know their driving personality.
That part, you’re right, that doesn’t map to ones as zeroes as easily, right? it’s not easily package. Does the Google car have the personality of the Mario Andretti Google car or the little old lady Google car, who knows.
Then add that to the trucking. You could see increasing complexity there. I imagine that there’s an awful lot of designing with human behavior and mind. It’s the same thing that happens with robotics, right? Humans, when they’re working with other humans, use social cues to say when you shouldn’t be disturbed or and watch out, something is dangerous or what have you. Something that we think robotics has to do with robots that are collaborating with people on the factory floor is they have to include some of these queues and some of these safety measures so that if the robot sees that a person is coming and it’s not looking at them whatever, the robot is not going to swing out an arm and knock him to the ground unconscious, right?
Now you have that same problem which you have in the free form. You’re not in the warehouse anymore.
You’re in the real world and the chaos of all the afternoon traffic in Boston.
Physics are against you when you’re moving fast on a highway compared to walking in a warehouse.
I mean it’s totally different contexts.
Right, so our second area of overlap to discuss today is about the ride sharing industry and your old school car manufacturers. There is an interesting circumstance that 2 weeks ago GM invested half a billion dollars in Lyft, and they’re part of this 1 billion dollar round of funding for Lyft. GM is basically making a bet on where they think the future of the transportation industry is going to be. They’re also looking to start having some counter to Apple, to the Google cars we were just talking about and to Uber as well.
It seems to me like that was a really good combination of the main line manufacturer, the field school, GM with the new technology, the ride sharing technology of Lyft.
I think immediately they’re going try to leverage that with some car rentals that are going to be available via Lyft, they’re going to be specialized to GM vehicles. In the future of course, you’re going to have ride sharing with specially designed cars that are meant to be autonomous etc.
You’ve had some great commentary in the past on mergers and acquisitions. What’s your take on this move by GM? Is that a good idea? Is it reflecting the future or is it a desperate grab for relevance?
Yeah, so I can’t see GM’s balance sheet so I can’t really say it’s a good idea or bad at you, but superficially it’s a good idea. For them to diversify into other modern areas of personal ground transportation just makes sense.
I can’t speak to the ones and the zeroes of the deal, but GM needs to diversify in ways like this if they want to stay relevant. Good, good for them. The bigger question for me is, I don’t know if it’s bigger question but, the thing that I’ve been thinking about is I heard of an Uber investor talking and he was just off hand saying “yeah, you know in the future nobody’s going to own cars, nobody’s going to own their own vehicle.” I’m very skeptical of that aspect of it.
Right. He hasn’t been to New England.
The other part of it is … Listen in a theoretical Utopian future there could be this network of all these different vehicles that come just in time.
You don’t have to buy. This sounds good on paper, but you know what, the reality is people are messy, people are smelly, people don’t take care of shared property and public property. I ride the bus now regularly, I’ve ridden the subway many times on my life and often times it’s unpleasant in different aesthetic ways and you just accept it. It is what it is, right? Right now the vast majority of Americans are using as transportation their personal automobile that is conforming to their sense of self and comfort. If it’s messy, it’s messy because they’ve left it messy and in the way they want to leave it messy and in the way they want to leave it messy. For some people their car’s immaculate or whatever the specifics are. In this theoretical future of nobody owning cars and vehicles just showing up, I mean what’s it like when there’s an empty bag of potato chips and crumbs all over the seat when you open the door.
That’s not great, right? There’s some easy robot technology that handles that kind of clean. What if somebody pee’s on the seat that ain’t so easy to …
I think, it all sounds good on paper and there are different technologies probably down the path of robotics that either can today or at some point in the future will solve it, but I think these technologists are really cavalier and ignorant of the real human social considerations for how these technology will manifest. For me, if the vehicle comes, if I know it’s going to be clean and smell good and I can set the seat up so I’m comfortable, that would be fine. I don’t need to own my own car. Lord knows I’d love to say if the money … although probably in the whole [inaudible 12:08] I wouldn’t end up saving anything but let’s forget that for a moment.
In theory, I’d loved to save the money. In theory I’d love to not have to deal with the car and there’s just overhead there. In theory I’d like to be more helpful to the environment and certainly having some super-efficient technology system that’s better than this inefficient thing of all of us owning a bajillion cars, but certainly where technology is today that the user experience of that vehicle would not be up to par for me.
It would take something that was … Okay I have to drive an hour, commute here, but this is a nice comfortable bubble that is just the way I want it and I feel safe and homey here and turns it into the Russian roulette of what did the Jack-hole before me do to this thing.
Just having to eat it. It’s definitely not there today. I do take for granted the tech will solve it at that some point, but I think it’s farther out. I think this Uber proclamations, nobody’s going to own, that’s out, it’s way out. Just because we are filthy freaking animals who are not considerate to each other on one hand, and on the other hand we want some personal safe space and shared public transportation. Just prove it in it yet and even at the level of Uber and Lyft, I’ll say I’ve taken, I don’t know, more than 20, less than 50 rides on these kinds of things.
I’d say 10 to 20% were environmentally unacceptable for me because again, due to smell, or dirtiness or weirdness. There was one Uber driver where in the back seat he the child seat on one side.
Then I come in on the other, so those examples are relevant to this exactly. I’m not going to have to worry about a child seat in this one.
Let’s pick up on that for a second because I was thinking about that myself. I’ve got child seats in my car and that’s an important part of my transportation equation for the day, both of the beginning and end of the day. There’s a fairly complex system that only works because, I mean right now, because I’m doing it, right?
I have my own vehicle et cetera, et cetera. I’ve got all the timing down. You pull out one of those things there, you put in a different driver, you change the timing, any of that.
That there’s an awful lot of vectors that need to be accounted for, from the amount of traffic on the mass pike at a certain time of day to where you park in the parking lot, so you have just enough time to go and get your child and not a second more or second less.
There are an awful lot of areas that needs to be accounted for that, it’s not quite as simple as ride sharing anymore. That does beg the question though, are we seeing the commoditization that the automobile is a platform? We saw it with computers, right? The software ends up being the customization layer that people use to get things done. The core hardware becomes this commodity that is not quite as special anymore. Cars have always been very special, especially for Americans, and our love affair with cars, I doubt, is going to end any time soon.
It’s interesting to see that force at work. You got the Route 66, the 1950s, the Big Fins, the classic cars, the whole history of the automobile wrapped up in Americana, and then on the other side you have the, “oh, well this is more efficient and it’s greener and maybe you don’t own your own car but boy, isn’t that … It gives you money to do other things.” There’s a tension there, I don’t know how it resolves itself but it seems to be like there’s the possibility that we’re looking at the commoditization of the car platform. If not today, then maybe a couple decades in the future.
Or maybe the further commoditization, right?
Now, I think most people drive Hondas and Toyotas, right? They’re driving vehicles that are, almost by definition, commodity vehicles. All be it a commodity that cost tens of thousands of dollars. How does that keep getting boiled down to the point where it’s like little smart cars flying around that don’t cost very much. Yeah, it definitely could take it to a different level.
You said the word “flying cars” which brings us to our 3rd overlap of technology and traditional industries today. Let’s talk a little bit about drones and the possibility of automated passenger vehicles as drones. There is a Chinese company called Ehang, I’m probably pronouncing that wrong, and their model Ehang184 is human carrying drone. They’ve got a concept video online, on YouTube, and they’re an established un-manned aerial vehicle maker in China. They’ve proven they can do this at a small scale. The concept video is interesting because they show all of their prototypes crashing and things like that. I’m not sure if that …
That sounds good. Sign me up.
I don’t know if that makes me feel better or not. If you consider for the moment that it seems possible that this multi-blade helicopter like vehicle drone could be your automated vehicle. You’re not in a car necessarily but you’re in the air now and you could be flown to your destination, presumably a little quicker than maybe waiting in traffic, or maybe there’s air traffic now which would be frightening. For me, that particular overlap of the automated vehicles with the drones, which we’ve talked about at length, that opened up my mind a little bit because never in my wildest dreams, I thought Amazon would be maybe delivering a package to my door one day, but I was not thinking that a drone would set down on my driveway and say, “okay, hey, it’s time to go to work, climb on it.”
I’ll tell you right now, I would be claustrophobic on one of those things. There’s no way they can make that thing big enough that would make me feel comfortable. What’s your take on this human-carrying drone, Dirk?
Here’s a prediction, by the time you and I retire from our professional careers, there will not be human carrying drones flying …
No freaking way. Look, there’s a physics issue, I mean energy issue, I mean it’s relatively low energy to put us in a car and roll it on the road. It is so high energy to pick us up, fight against the physics. I’m not a scientist so I can’t speak to it but a ventured guess, it’s an order of magnitude. More expensive, energy wise. Both from dollars and cents but also from global environmental impact to fly us as supposed to just roll us down the road. I don’t think we’re going to see it until there’s major innovation on the energy side. Even then, we might be so far down the ascend of global warming but even that more efficient thing is too expensive to enable us to do it.
We’ve got to get to the point where it’s energy neutral, basically, transporting people around. Energy neutral flight? I don’t know. Maybe there’s technology out there that I’m just not aware of, but I think that’s a way the hell off. You and I are going to be rolling around until we’re …
Yeah. Maybe our kids or somebody else will enjoy technology like that. We’re a long, long way away from that being more than just concept videos of crashing drones.
Right. I do think there might be some specialty areas that could use it, so I could see it being used for medical evac, for instance, or remote areas or on the highway, when you need to get someone to the hospital very quickly. I could see emergency use, military use, but for general use, I agree it doesn’t seem really feasible, at least, in the next decade or so.
Even in most emergency cases, when somebody is ill and needs to be medically evac-ed, they really need a medical professional that are present with them, right?
Yes, I think there are probably some corner cases in those areas where it all aligns to make sense but I even think most of the time it doesn’t make sense there. The helicopter can bring a few people there. There’s some infrastructure, there’s some equipment, we’ll see.
Yeah, we’ll see. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com, that’s just one L on thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterwards if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer or email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for episode 141 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.