The sun came up over San Francisco on December 14, revealing a bevy of double-ended Zoox robotaxis fiddling with themselves in the dawn light. Finally, we got to see what Amazon's new billion-dollar plaything, picked up last year at a fire sale price after an eternity of Silicon Valley stealthiness, had been up to.
It was a weird way to end a weird year for autonomous mobility. During the spring lockdowns, passengers turned away from the closed-in confines of ride hail vehicles and investors wallets' clamped shut. A new winter for self-driving technology was in the cards. It drove Uber out of the AV game. But not before the company pivoted into delivery in a big way.
And that was super-interesting. Because as Uber's revenue base decisively shifted from hauling people to hauling take out, it highlighted one of the big trends I'd pegged in Ghost Road (which, published on June 16, slipped in under the lidar). The "killer app" for autonomous vehicles was far more likely to be freight than passenger transportation. COVID-19 had simply expedited the delivery of that particular trend by 3 to 5 years. And so, today in places like the UK's last-but-not-least new town Milton Keynes, zoom zoom, the bots are banging the door down, and they've got your re-up of Marmite in tow. (see photo in Field Notebook below)
I'm still somewhat bearish on taxibots (more on that next month). GM's Cruise group has its own taxibot, the Origin, which sports a near-identical 2 vs 2 carriage-style seating configuration, both of which mimic the highly social interiors of driverless shuttles that European manufacturers have been testing in their cities and around the world for nearly a decade. The design, and the kinds of urban mobility services that it will enable, have a lot going to for them. They're a big step in the right direction away from private cars, and away from the self-driving sprawl Tesla seems determined to drive us towards.
But I worry that as Amazon, GM, and Alphabet go to war over the streets of San Francisco in the year to come it will make the "capital-fueled deathmatch", as Bay Area tech guru Tim O'Reilly called the Lyft-Uber ride-hail rivalry, look timid by comparison. A new age of "traction monopolies", bigger and badder than those that dominated cities in the early 20th century, could soon be upon us.
And that's why I'm spamming you again with this newsletter. There's so much going on we need to talk about, and I hope this monthly missive of ideas, insights, and occasionally shameless self-promotion about all things self-driving will keep you in the know a little bit better. You can, of course, unsubscribe, but I hope you won't. You'll miss out on all these pictures of robots.
Service Bots on the Rise
As Zoox and GM gear up to take on Waymo, and the ride-hail war of petrostate-funded capitalist attrition enters a new and even more disgusting phase, in addition to focusing on delivery and logistics I've started taking note of the huge variety of AVs rolling off the drafting table and into our imagination that don't just carry people and boxes but do stuff like clean, watch, and cultivate our cities. Much as delivery AVs are racing to market by narrowing down the operating range to a very limited scope of stuff to be "learned" by machines, startups building municipal service bots will be able to target their efforts on high ROI domains. And cities can simply shift the goalposts to make conditions easier, something they are not likely to do for freight or passenger AVs.
Ghost Road named "Best business book of 2020"
Ghost Road offers up an exhilarating picture of the ways in which autonomous vehicles might transform our lives for the better, saving time and lives, reshaping cities, and helping combat climate change. But the author is also keenly aware of the risks and costs such a future could bring, and of the possibility that AVs will instead usher in a bleaker, more dystopian tomorrow.
If you're buying, may I suggest Bookshop.org to support local booksellers?
I'll be using this newsletter to share field notes. This month's installment highlights conveyor congestion on Milton Keynes's cycle and pedestrian path network as deliveries surge during the COVID-19 lockdown. While we didn't forecast the pandemic, just this sort of private robotic takeover of public right-of-way for human-powered mobility was something we warned about back in 2018 in a set of scenarios for the National League of Cities.
Please send me your snapshots of automated, autonomous, self-driving, and driverless vehicles in the wild.