I can still remember that feeling I got at 17 when I could finally drive. It’s hard for me to fully describe that feeling of empowerment and ostensible independence. I doubt that I’m the only person of a certain age to know what that feels like.
Turns out that that feeling may be going the way of the Dodo. Services such as Lyft and crisis-riddled Uber are challenging the very notion of car ownership. And then there’s the idea of the autonomous car. Who says that in ten years you’ll actually have to drive yourself at all. Many tech and traditional car companies are betting billions of dollars on the rise of driverless automobiles.
Yes, there’s a revolution taking place in transportation. Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Sebastian Wedeniwski of Standard Chartered, co-author of My Cognitive autoMOBILE Life: Digital Divorce from a Cognitive Personal Assistant along with Stephen Perun of IBM.
PS: Without being too technical, talk to me about the artificial intelligence involved in autonomous cars.
SW: There are different levels of automation, and all are moving towards a fully autonomous car. Some just use AI techniques but keep the driver in the loop, such or lane keeping assist technology. That’s different from automated parking, where the driver is not involved. You see elementary-level AI technologies inside many cars today: Image recognition and natural language processing are used to translate human language to services provided either inside or outside the vehicle. In our book, we examine how these technologies will be extended outwards and upwards. It’s not just about the self-driving aspect of an autonomous vehicle, but at how technology will have self-healing, self-integrating, self-configuring, self-learning, and self-socializing functions as well.
PS: When can we expect autonomous cars en masse?
SW: The truth is, the technology is already there. What’s more important in terms of adoption is how fast the regulations and infrastructure can be changed. Some cities will achieve this in ten years, but most won’t. Cell phones are an example of what we sometimes call leapfrog technology: it’s a product that allows developing market to reap the benefits of a reliable and extensive communications network, but without the heavy investment in fixed-line phone infrastructure. The same situation is going to happen with autonomous cars.
PS: Most of us know about Uber and Lyft, but fewer of us are aware of car2go. Explain the company’s contribution to the current transportation revolution.
SW: Uber and Lyft are well known in United States, but the current transportation revolution is happening all over the world. For example, the Grab is the leading ride-hailing platform in Southeast Asia. The situation in emerging markets or newly industrialized countries is very different to that in mature markets. Uber is still improving safety for passengers after cases of robbery and sexual harassment. But it’s not only safety that puts Uber in such markets behind, it’s also the adaption of new services to drive further the revolution.
There’s a hyper-local transport, logistics and payments startup in Indonesia, GO-JEK, which provides far more services than Uber does. It offers the standard ride, food delivery and courier services, and then also has auto care services, towing and emergency services, or even services to get your house, room or office clean. GO-PAY or GrabPay are non-regulated startups that are revolutionizing the regulated banking business.
What’s different between car2go and Uber or Lyft is that car2go is not so strong in emerging markets as well as Uber. Car2go is a platform that was completely self-developed by the car-manufacturer Daimler —it’s a different kind of enterprise revolution, compared to an acquisition or joint venture, which is what other automotive OEMs have done. With car2go, you need to drive the vehicle yourself — but you can grab any available car2go vehicle on the road and pay by driving minute. It’s a business model more similar to Zipcar, and allows you a tremendous amount of flexibility and freedom.
PS: Will car ownership become obsolete in 20 years?
SW: Not for super-rich people in some markets, and not for some niche vehicle products. But in general, yes — and it is already happening with the younger generations.