Optimism in technology can sometimes run rampant – remember that we were all going to be paperless by the end of the last century? Now I’m not sure what your desk looks like, but mine is a bit buried under – what else – paper! Those stacks doesn’t mean, however, that technology isn’t prevalent in my world – I tend to prefer e-books over paperbacks – but it does reinforce the idea that there is often still going to be a use for what we may think is going away. Why is this? Because, in the case of paper, there’s still a belief, need, and even a personal preference to keep using tree fodder for reading, writing, and reviewing.
So what does this have to do with the world of automated/autonomous vehicles?
Today, there’s a lot of talk about automated/autonomous vehicle technologies and, if you were to believe the pundits (and those beholden to venture capitalists), we’ll be riding around in driverless cars and trucks within the next 5-10 years…or sooner! For example, Ford states it will have a driverless car that won’t even have controls (steering wheel, pedals, or gauges) by 2021. Whether it will be allowed on the road, or functions in rain and snow, remains to be seen. My bet is that it will be a tourist attraction at Greenfield Village long before replacing cars on the highway. I say that because it’s vital to keep in mind that demonstration of a technology does not necessarily equate to the commercialization of a technology!
The one thing that the pundits seem to miss out on is that delivering driverless vehicles (or even advanced automated technologies), involves more than just the technology. Also important is the ecosystem around this technology – and it’s this ecosystem that is likely to slow the process of getting to true autonomous vehicles. The technology will continue to advance, no doubt, and we’ll see more automation coming fast – like water through a garden hose – but getting to truly driverless is still a long way off. Why? Because the ecosystem will impact the speed at which the technology advances – or doesn’t.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Not even automated/autonomous vehicle evolution. Not until the ecosystem supports and embraces the technology.
Before we get into elements of the automated/autonomous ecosystem, at least from my perspective, let’s define an “ecosystem.” As you know from past blog posts, when it comes to definitions, I always reference www.dictionary.com. According to this source, an ecosystem has two meanings – “1: a system, or group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. And “2: Any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts, as in a business.”
While either definition could fit, I lean more towards the second, primarily for two words – interconnecting and interacting. To me, as we move forward in the automated/autonomous ecosystem, interconnected and interactive best describe what we’re going to see happen. The elements (OK, a bit of the first definition does apply) in our ecosystem need to be interconnected – without one area connected to another and verifying, clarifying, or basically understanding the others, any one element can slow or even stop the evolution of the ecosystem. Also, the elements need to interact with each other to deliver the clarifications, verifications, and understanding between them. Bottom line - we’re not going to sell or advance a technology without having customers, and customers aren’t going to buy the technology if they don’t believe it is safe and effective. And, if it isn’t safe and effective, the government is not going to allow it on the roads. I think you get the picture: Interconnectivity of the elements, and interaction among the elements, is needed for the ecosystem to survive, evolve, and prosper.
Now that we’ve defined the term ecosystem, let’s discuss the elements, at least as I define them, in the automated/autonomous ecosystem. Overall, from my perspective, there are seven elements:
- First, the functional technology – This is the what it does, not necessarily the how it does it. There are a lot of ways to make the functional aspects of automated/autonomous vehicles work – such as utilizing different types of sensors, communications, algorithms, and controls. At the center of our ecosystem are four key functional technologies – those that deliver Acceleration/Deceleration, Steering, Information/Connectivity, and Redundancy. These are the basic functions needed for automated/autonomous driving technologies.
- Next, the Customer – There always needs to be a buyer. And there always needs to be a value for the customer to buy. That purchase, of course, must deliver a timely return on investment (ROI). After all, while the technology is exciting, we’re all in business to make money. The technology isn’t chosen for the wow, it’s chosen for the what – as in what it will do to lower costs, improve productivity, drive new revenue, or all three. No return, no interest, no future.
- An Evolving Industry – Have you ever considered that perhaps we’re really not in the trucking industry? We’re not. At the simplest, we’re in the transportation industry. The purpose of our industry is to make money by moving goods (or people) from point A to point B on time, safely, and in good condition. There are many ways of accomplishing these basic functions besides putting the goods in a trailer, hooking it to a tractor, and hauling those goods cross country. New approaches to performing this basic task, via land, sea, and air mean that the industry continues to evolve. Look at Amazon – distribution centers on land and in the air; and drone delivery of goods may be just the beginning. As the industry evolves, you have to ask yourself, where should automating modes really be occurring to better facilitate the basic function of transportation?
- And the Evolving Competitive Landscape – No matter who you are in the industry, you’ve got new competitors now, and you’ll have new and different competition in the future. Guess what? Those new competitors are also your customers! For a Tier 1 supplier like Bendix, our OE customers are also becoming our competitors in the technological race. For fleets, shippers are becoming competitors – look at Walmart and how they are beginning to evolve to compete with Amazon. We’ve also got new competitors – 10 years ago, did you ever think Google would be developing automated vehicles through its Waymo spin-off? How about Uber Freight? New players and new ways of doing things mean a lot in terms of how we have to think, prepare, and compete. For Bendix and others in the commercial vehicle marketplace, the landscape is changing. The days of a product – or a product family – remaining virtually unchanged, for 20-30 years are gone. Products now need to constantly be reevaluated and reinvented to keep up and to move ahead.
- Government Legislation/Regulation – Regulations are needed to ensure a safe and level playing field for development and application, as well as ensuring the infrastructure exists to make things happen. It’s not about slowing things down – it’s making sure that people and property stay unharmed as the evolution occurs. And it’s about making sure that evolution isn’t chaotic but controlled – to an extent. Regulatory and legislative actions will happen on all levels – federal, state and local. We’re already seeing it – states that allow or don’t allow testing of automated technologies on trucks. And, it’s not just about regulation and legislation. It also means infrastructure to help facilitate the advancement – from something as simple as making sure lines on the road are visible to adding fiber optic cable to enable vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. Helping to make automated/autonomous vehicles happen safely, efficiently, and effectively – and enforcing the rules to ensure a level playing field – will be the role of government in this ecosystem.
- Safety – No matter how automated/autonomous systems evolve, they have to be safe for all who may be impacted by them. The rush to put technology in the marketplace should not short the need for it to work safely for those in the vehicle and on the roadway. And, just as important, those using the technology must be aware of how it works and its limitations. Never forget the Tesla crash – while we can blame the driver for not using the system properly, we have to ask – did he abuse the system or did he just not know that he couldn’t do what he was doing with the technology?
- And finally, Society – The silent majority isn’t so silent anymore. Voices get heard across a variety of mediums, and if folks aren’t comfortable with what’s happening, they’ll force change – or at least let everyone know they have concerns. This can be helpful, or detrimental to an automated/autonomous future. It will sure have an impact on how quickly we get to truly driverless trucks. Your kids may be comfortable with the idea of a driverless 80,000-lb truck, but are you?
These seven elements of the ecosystem are interconnected and will be interactive. Technology will move forward, but customers will or won’t buy, competition will come and go, government will regulate or deregulate, and society will weigh in, especially if safety may be compromised. These elements will work together to help enhance or, if needed, temper the advance.
You may feel differently, or feel I’m missing something here. That’s good. Your thoughts and perspectives are always most welcome!
As with this entire “Future of Autonomy” blog series, we’ll also explore deeper into the automated/autonomous ecosystem and delve into more detail. For now, think of the ecosystem as a whole and how it might impact your company’s place in it – today and tomorrow.
Are you thinking evolution…or extinction?
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