In March 2004, a comedy of errors unfolded in the Mojave Desert. A million-dollar prize was on offer via the DARPA Grand Challenge for any self-driving car that could complete a 240km course. The best performer didn’t even make it 12km before coming off the road at a hairpin turn and getting stuck on an embankment. One of the 15 entrants managed to flip itself upside down itself before it even left the starting gate.
It’s amazing to think that, in barely more than a decade, we’ve gone from the Keystone Cops to self-driving cars safely navigating the streets of many cities. A big part of that story is the amazing power of simply setting a clear goal and attaching a prize to it. I remember how graduate students and professors on the MIT team became so engrossed in the DARPA Grand Challenge, they forgot to eat and sleep. Humans can be incredibly dedicated and successful when we have a target in mind.
Today, the main conversation about self-driving cars is not about technological feasibility, but societal impacts and industrial transformation: How difficult will it be for the taxi drivers and truckers who’ll lose their jobs to find another way of making a living? How will the industry change if we stop thinking about cars as things we own continuously but only use 5% of the time, and start seeing them as an on-demand service? How much can we reduce accidents, pollution and congestion?
The same conversations are happening about all kinds of automation. I meet optimists who say: “Erik, there’s no need to worry. Technology will make life better for everyone, like it always has in the past.” I meet pessimists who say: “Erik, there’s no point in fighting it. Humans won’t be able to keep up with what the next wave of machine capabilities. We’re heading for a world of mass unemployment and extreme inequality.”