The AV arguably may be a key innovation for 21st-century automobility, but it is not “the one” that will really matter. Rather it is an enabler in a massive network of innovations most of which are as yet incomplete or unknown—certainly, very few of them are fully conceived and none are built. Many of these innovations are not strictly technical as they are in the financial, social and regulatory domains.

But the self-driving car is the idea that excites our imaginations or aggravates our fears. Consider an analogy to the light bulb, as captured perfectly in Steven Johnson’s How We Got To Now [John-14]:

“You needed to invent light bulbs, yes, but you also needed a reliable source of electric current, a system for distributing that current through a neighborhood, a mechanism for connecting individual light bulbs to the grid and a meter to gauge how much electricity each household was using. A light bulb on its own is a curiosity piece, something to dazzle reporters with. What Edison and the Muckers created was much bigger than that: a network of multiple innovations, all linked together to make the magic of electric light safe and affordable.” (our italics, and fully transferrable to the AV!).

In 2050, this same observation will be made about the history of the robotic vehicle. The bedazzling self-driving car will be remembered as the momentous achievement—Thrun’s light-bulb moment—in the popular re-telling of the 2005 DARPA challenge and Google to school children, but if 2050 is to see a sustainable new automobility as the majority of humans on the planet continue to adopt powered vehicles without relent, then we need multiple forms and massive amounts of connectivity, new ownership models, massive sharing, predominantly non-fossil portable energy and distribution systems for that energy, new insurance models, new policing and enforcement tools, policy-ensured user equity (for access fairness), shifts from taxation to fee-for-use, programs to avert labour unrest, and much else. The interplay of privacy, security, and marketing alone remains unsolved and will require many technical improvements as well as a continuing evolution of social norms—something that will be both helped and hindered by the popular media.

If this myriad of other issues is not acknowledged, agreed and addressed the eventual solution—and there will be one—risks being dramatically distorted from any optimal outcome. If that happens, automobility late in this century will be a recognizable continuation of the mess we called automobility late in the last one.

[John-14] Johnson, S., (2014) How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. (Interestingly, the automobile did not make it into Johnson’s short list.)

Bern Grush