Driverless Cars

I completely agree with the headline of this blog post, but not with the overall sentiment.  Driverless cars are going to change the world, and for the better.  I’m not sure how much they will do so in my lifetime, it’s hard to believe that anyone born before 1985 or so is going to completely trust them.

The car insurance industry will cease to exist. These cars aren’t going to crash. Even if there are hold-outs that drive themselves, insurance would be so expensive they couldn’t afford it, as no one else would need it.

These cars will crash.  For as long as humans are allowed to drive, they will be causing accidents, hitting other driverless cars and each other.  There are also a number of causes of accidents that are still going to happen, such as those involving wildlife or severe weather or mechanical failure.  The robocars will handle these situations far better than humans, but they will still happen, and people will still be injured and killed as a result.

If the cars don’t crash, then the auto collision repair / auto body industry goes away. The car industry also shrinks as people don’t have to replace cars as often.

The car industry will likely shrink over time, just as any other technology-driven industry as.  They will be forced to evolve to new products.  This will happen slowly enough that if they’re properly managed, they should be able to shrink through attrition.

Long-haul truck driving will cease to exist. Think how much money trucking companies will save if they don’t have to pay drivers or collision and liability insurance. That’s about 3 million jobs in the States. Shipping of goods will be much cheaper.  On that note, no more bus drivers, taxi drivers, limo drivers.

This is definitely true.  I bear no ill will towards professional drivers but I think we can find jobs that are more rewarding for people than driving goods or passengers from point A to point B, and often drive back to A with an empty truck.  Trucks also account for the vast majority of road wear, a single tractor trailer can do as much damage to a road as nearly 10,000 normal cars.  The main reason we load so much weight onto a truck is so you only need one driver.  It will be more efficient to send smaller loads by robotruck, as they can be better targeted (think one truck per state rather than one truck per region), which will result in smaller trucks.

Meter maids. Gone. Why spend $20 on parking when you can just send the car back home? There goes $40 million in parking revenue to the City of Vancouver by the way.

Considering much of that revenue is probably supporting the collection of that revenue (meter maids, infrastructure, towing, courts,etc.) I don’t think this is a net loss.  Also, fewer parking spots means more pleasant streets with less traffic problems.

Many in cities will get rid of their cars altogether and simply use RoboTaxis. They will be much cheaper than current taxis due to no need for insurance (taxi insurance costs upwards of $20,000/year), no drivers, and no need for taxi medallions (which can cost half a million in Vancouver). You hit a button on your iPhone, and your car is there in a few minutes.  Think how devastating that would be to the car industry. People use their cars less than 10% of the time. Imagine if everyone in your city used a RoboTaxi instead, at say 60% utilization. That’s 84% fewer cars required.


No more deaths or injuries from drinking and driving. MADD disappears. The judicial system, prisons, and hospital industry shrink due to the lack of car accidents.

Let us hope that we don’t see MADD exhibit the Shirky Principle (“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”) and simply fades away to an irrelevance we can all agree is a success.

Car sharing companies like Zip, Modo, Car2Go are all gone. Or, one of them morphs into a robo-taxi company.

I think they will definitely be robotaxis, but there will also be a need for specialty cars like pickups.  We may even see an increased diversity of car designs available for rental where you can have a special grocery-mobile sent over, or a van with 12 seats, or one with extra entertainment options for your long trips, and so on.

Safety features in cars disappear (as they are no longer needed), and cars will become relatively cheaper.

Very unlikely, as people buy fewer cars and use them less frequently the prices will go up accordingly.  We’ll also probably require, through legislation, even more safety features, simply because of an inherent distrust of the technology.

I’m  really hoping that robocars are a reality within the next 30-40 years when I will be at the point where I shouldn’t be driving any more, and I’m happy to see that we actually seem on track to do that.

Amazon Showrooms

Amazon caught a lot of heat over this past holiday season over some improvements to its shopping app.  It made it easier than ever to find out that you probably don’t need to buy that blender at Sears, when you can get it for 30% less on Amazon and don’t even have to carry it home.  There were cries that small businesses can’t compete with this and would all be dead soon.

There is nothing at Best Buy or Barnes & Noble that you can’t get on Amazon (or many other online stores).  It’s rare that it will not be cheaper online, even during a sale (which typically just brings the price down to a normal online price).  Is it sustainable to have a store where I can go and hold something, and then order it from somewhere else?  No.  Should we feel bad for the big box stores?  No.  Should we feel bad for the shopkeeper who sells a particular niche at a high markup without adding value?  No.

Stores that only sell commodity products are a recent innovation to take advantage of a temporary imbalance.  They will eventually go the way of dodos, video rental stores, and record labels.  We’re still going to have a few, because there are enough “need it now” purchases to sustain the Targets and Wal-Marts, and we’ll probably still have a few high-end ones where excellent service matters like Nordstrom, but most of the stores out there are turning into showrooms.

What if Amazon bought BJs?

(BJs is a consumer warehouse/bulk goods store, like Costco and others).  My Prime membership takes the place of my BJs membership.  Instead of walking around with a giant shopping cart and driving home with mass quantities of things, I simply browse the aisles for products I like.   When I see one, I scan it with my phone, and it’s on my doorstep the next day.  There are a few people on staff that might help, and there’s a hotline to specialists that understand the products and can answer my questions.  No need for a massive loading-dock infrastructure, or inventory control, or 50′ tall ceilings to heat, or many of the other overhead expenses that yield the current retail markups.

What about the little guy?

I’d like to see our shops go back to actually making things and/or adding value.  Custom products, not “regional dealers”.  There will definitely be less of them, but this will make more space and lower rents for the people who just want a spot where they can sell their craft, or for people to provide useful services instead of distribution.

When will Google buy VMWare?

Google’s Chromebooks are starting to go mass-market. For those that don’t know, these are essentially laptops that only have a web browser on them. No Windows, no OS X or Linux. To many people, this seems ludicrous. You need apps, right? You need data?

The truth is, the majority of people already only use browser “apps”, which we used to call “websites”. Google has been leading the charge on this, by pushing the envelope on in-browser apps with Google Docs and the Chrome App Store. There are other players too, Apple is training people to buy apps, and not worry about having to reinstall them when your hardware fails. DropBox is training people to sync everything. Amazon is training people to have virtual CD shelves. Steam is training people to have virtual game libraries. Citrix and LogMeIn are training people to work on remote desktops, and so on.

These are all coming together to get people to the point where we basically go back to dumb terminals. Your computer is nothing more than a local node on the network. That, however, is not the interesting part, people have been saying that for years.

The interesting part, to me, is that it’s not actually going to be the typical early adopters going there first. My girlfriend’s computer literally has nothing on it. She only uses browser apps and iTunes, which is connected to our NAS where her photos are also stored. She uses GMail, Facebook, Google Docs, etc. With the exception of syncing her iPod, which I have to assume someone will figure out how to do in the ChromeOS ecosystem, I’m not sure she would really notice any difference.

Now my computer(s) are a long ways from there. I’ve got development environments, SQL servers, mail servers, all sorts of infrastructure set up. I could certainly move to a remote desktop or a remote terminal on a server, but the change would be much more disruptive and not without some costs.

Along a different path, we’ve seen a long progression of advances in virtualization. I actually do most of my work in VMs now, for a number of reasons, but one of which is that I’m not dependent on a particular piece of hardware. If my laptop is destroyed or stolen, I’m back up to speed very quickly. The only thing I’d need to do is install VMWare, plug in my drive, and I’m good to go.

I think these two paths are going to meet up soon. I think ChromeOS is a way to get the low-demand computer users on board. If Google buys VMWare, they can come at it from the other end as well. I think VMs will get leaner while browsers get more robust, and we’ll end up with a hybrid of the two. A lightweight OS that is heavily network/app/web based? I wonder where Google would get one of those? Oh, right, they already did.

Software that isn’t afraid to ask questions

An area that user-focused software has gotten better at in the past 10 years or so is being aware, and protective of, the context in which users are operating. Things like autocomplete and instant validation are expected behaviors now. An area that software is really picking up steam is analytics, understanding behaviors. You see lightweight versions of this creeping into consumer software with things like and the graphs in Thunderbird, but most of the cool stuff is happening on a large scale in Hadoop clusters and hedge funds, because that where the money is right now.

But where software has not been making advancements is in being proactively helpful, using that context awareness, as well as those analytics. If that phrase puts you in a Clippy-induced rage, my apologies, but I think this is an area where software needs to go. I think Clippy failed because it was interfering with creative input. We’ve since learned that when I user wants to tell you something, you want to expedite that, not interfere. Google’s famed homepage doesn’t tell you how, or how to search. They’ve adapted to work with what people want to tell it.

I’m talking about software that gets involved in things computers are good at, like managing information, and gets involved in the process the way that a helpful person would. We’ve done some of this in simple, mechanical ways. will tell me when I’ve blown my beef jerky budget, Thunderbird will remind you to attach a file if you have the word “attached” in your email. I think this is a teeny-tiny preview of where things will go.

Let’s say you get a strange new job helping people manage their schedule. You get assigned a client. What’s the first thing you do, after introducing yourself? You don’t sit there and watch them, or ask them to fill out a calendar and promise to remind them when things are due. No, you ask questions. And not questions a computer would currently ask, but a question like “what’s the most important thing you do every day?”. Once you’ve gotten a few answers, you start making specific suggestions like “Do you think you could do this task on the weekends instead of before work?”.

Now, we’re a long way from software fooling people into thinking it cares about them, or understand their quirks, but we’re also not even trying to do the simple stuff. When I enter an appointment on Google calendar, it has some fields I can put data in, but it makes no attempt to understand what I’m doing. It doesn’t try to notice that it’s a doctor’s appointment in Boston at 9am and that I’m coming from an hour away during rush hour, and maybe that 15 minute reminder isn’t really going to do much. It would be more helpful if it asks a question like “are you having blood drawn?”, because if I am, it can then remind me the night before that I shouldn’t eat dinner. It can look at traffic that morning and tell me that maybe I should leave even earlier because there’s an accident. It can put something on my todo list for two weeks from now to see if the results are in. All from asking one easy question.

Now, a programmer who got a spec with a feature like this would probably be speechless. The complexity and heuristics involved are enormous. It would probably get pared down to “put doctor icon on appointment if the word doctor appears in title”. Lame, but that’s a start, right? I think this behavior is going to be attacked on many fronts, from “dumb” rules like that, to fancy techniques that haven’t even been invented yet.

I’ve started experimenting with this technique to manage the list of ideas/tasks I have. In order to see how it might work, I’ve actually forbidden myself to even use a GUI. It’s all command line prompts, because I basically want it to ask me questions rather than accept my commands. There’s not much to it right now, it basically picks an item off the list, and says, “Do you want to do this?” and I have to answer it (or skip it, which is valid data too). I can say it’s already done, or that I can’t do it because something else needs to happen first, or that I just don’t want to do it today.

If it’s having trouble deciding what option to show me, it will show two of them and say “Which of these is more important?”. Again, I’m not re-ordering a list or assigning priorities, I’m answering simple questions. More importantly, I’m only answering questions that have a direct impact on how the program helps me. None of this is artificial intelligence or fancy math or data structures, the code is actually pretty tedious so far, but even after a few hours, it actually feels helpful, almost personable.

If you know of any examples of software that actually tries to help in meaningful ways, even if it fails at it, let me know!