Tulips, Delusions & Autonomy

While I am admittedly a partisan of autonomous technology for automobiles, it does occur to me that there seems to be a certain zeal about it that is perhaps more than slightly over-the-top. So, while this might cause certain people to gasp, it is something that I sincerely think people ought to think about. . .

If you’ve ever flown through Schiphol Airport, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the kiosks selling tulip bulbs. Back in the early 17th century, those bulbs wouldn’t be openly available along with wooden shoes and Delft pottery, but would have been essentially in bank vaults.

Back then tulip bulb speculation became such that the bulbs (and their futures) were as costly as a king’s ransom.

And then, as these things usually happen, cooler heads prevailed and the bulb prices collapsed. “Tulip Mania” was over, and it left a whole lot of investors busted.

This situation is often cited as an example of an economic bubble. It was also used as a prime example in a 19th century book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written by British journalist Charles Mackay.

The Cliff’s Notes version is that people became increasingly excited about the promise and prospects of tulips, and this interest grew on itself.

While a LiDAR system has little similarity with a flower, it is striking how there seems to be so much momentum growing for self-driving vehicles. Companies—OEMs and suppliers alike—are spending millions and even billions (GM spent over $1-billion on Cruise Automation; Intel spent about $15-billion for Mobileye) on autonomous technology.

But a question that no one seems to be asking is why?

About the same time that tulips were becoming so popular in Amsterdam in the early 17th century, over in London the first hackney companies were being established. That was arguably the start of the taxi business that we know today.

For centuries people who wanted to have individual conveyance to a destination of their choice have been able to avail themselves of a cab or a limo or a rickshaw or other type of vehicle.

Uber and Lyft have entered into the fray, making it even more convenient.

But why do people need or want autonomous cars?

Think about it: by and large what is being developed for the near-to-medium term are vehicles that are going to be able to operate autonomously only within a finite (“geofenced” area). Chances are, those areas will be in large cities in entertainment areas or in upscale housing developments that may literally have gates and fences surrounding their perimeters.

What will you do if you need to go outside of one of those areas? Get an Uber?

At some point there will be SAE Level 5 automation, meaning that the vehicles will be able to operate without a driver wherever.

But for a considerable period of time, even taking into account whatever might be the autonomous vehicle analog of Moore’s Law, chances are the technology is going to be exceedingly expensive, so individual car ownership might diminish for the simple reason that people may not be able to buy one. So when there’s the sudden urge for a run to Taco Bell, it is going to be a matter of hailing a vehicle; when Blade Runner 2149 lets out, it is going to be a considerable crowd of maneuvering driverless vehicles—and how will you know which is yours?

The invention of the automobile wasn’t an evolutionary change from transportation via horse. The invention of the telephone changed the way people communicated, a major change from the telegraph. The computer wasn’t a better adding machine with an improved user interface.

But the autonomous car is still a car.

And a tulip is a tulip.