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Automation versus Autonomy in the $1T Industry at the Heart of The American Dream

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Automation versus Autonomy in the $1T Industry at the Heart of The American Dream

With the recent deaths of Chuck Berry and Robert Pirsig, and the growing reality of self-driving cars, there is a sense that...

14 Minutes Read

With the recent deaths of Chuck Berry and Robert Pirsig, and the growing reality of self-driving cars, there is a sense that one chapter of American life is coming to an end, and another is beginning.

To a young Englishman growing up in suburban London in the 1970's America (and particularly American rock and roll) was the focus of all my dreams and imaginings. Driving to the London Gateway service station on the M1 late at night was really a trip down Route 66 or the Ventura Highway (in my mind) with a soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, or Chuck blasting away on the tiny car radio. My pals and I may have been in a clapped-out Renault 5, but in our imaginations we were in a souped-up cherry red 53 or driving down to the levy in a Chevy, even though we didn’t know what a levy was! Driving meant music, and the best music had the G-force of a tight corner at 80 mph.

Fast forward a few years and I re-traced Phaedrus’s journey through Montana and Idaho in a back-packing tour bus, dreaming that I was on a Honda Super Hawk 305.
The wide open vistas of the American west was the perfect backdrop to ponder the metaphorical road ahead and think deep thoughts; or least about how to get the attractive fellow back-packer sitting in front of me to realize that I was the solution to all the problems she was running away from.

America and cars go together like Laurel and Hardy, like Biggie and Tupac, like AT and T. Stop someone on the streets of Buenos Aires or Moscow or Ulaanbaatar, and ask them what comes to mind when they think of America, and I’d wager that once they’d got past giggling about El Hombre Naranja en la Casa Blanca they’d talk about driving a convertible through Malibu or Monument Valley, or about hanging with Prince in a little red Corvette, or about heading out with Broooooose and Wendy on a last chance power drive. Motorcycles and “Murica” aren’t far behind – drive to your local Home Depot on a typical Sunday afternoon and you’ll pass Hog after Hog out pretending they’re not really an accountant or an electrical contractor but Wyatt or Billy, sticking it to the man as they take an easy ride, before the conventional ordinariness of Monday morning rolls round again.

The open road is at the heart of the American dream. Getting behind the wheel or gripping the handle bars runs through the DNA of America in deep and profound ways. Though the French may have invented much of the underlying technology of the early automobile, the Italians and English the art of racing, and the Germans the industrialization of the ultimate driving machine, it is America with which the car will always be most closely associated in the global hive mind. A $1 trillion industry (the size of the current US auto market) isn’t built on utility or functionality or MPG alone; it is built on dreams and fantasies and sneaky feelings best not discussed in polite society. It is built on looks and curves. On freedom and on mastery. On torques and pistons. On (horse) power - the machines, and yours.

At its most elemental it is built on the human need for autonomy.

The autonomy a 17 year wants from his parents.

The autonomy a 27 year wants from his starter job.

The autonomy a 50 year wants from an underwhelming career and a life not quite as advertised.

Behind the wheel of a car, perfecting the turn, leaving the jerk to eat your dust, beating the lights, you are in control. You’re a master. A winner. You’re a boss. You have power. You are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

When I was a cub consultant in the late 1980’s I worked for a short time on a project that went really badly. The project was rubbish but more mortifyingly I was rubbish. I didn’t really have the skills the client needed and on a daily basis became more and more exposed as an idiot totally out of my depth. My colleagues avoided me as a bad smell and the client team glanced alternatingly angrily or pityingly at me as I sat at my lonely desk trying to look like I was a thrusting young master of the universe.

Every day at clocking off time I got in my car and sat there for a few minutes not sure if I wanted to scream or cry. Most times I did both. But every evening a strange thing happened. As I started driving, my confidence slowly came back. As I started accelerating and weaving through the motorway traffic I felt my spirits begin to buoy again. As I floored it I morphed from an over-priced, under-performing stiff-in-a-suit into the under-paid, yet-to-be discovered, newest member of the McLaren Formula One racing team. At the wheel of my baby beamer I bounced back into the person I thought I really was, not the person who I had been all day.

The control I had in the car, the mastery of the machine and the road, the autonomy I felt – after a day of feeling powerless and emasculated – brought me back to life. Over the course of the three months of the project my commute became shorter and shorter. What took an hour to begin with took no more than 40 minutes on the sweet day that the project finished.

The autonomy I had in my car was a life saver. Looking back on that period (which in retrospect was a very significant time in my life, one learning more from one’s failures than one’s successes etc.) I’ve often felt that if I had had to commute on public transport I don’t think I would have been able to stick it out. I would have probably quit the job in frustration and shame, and in doing so, changed the trajectory of the life that I then went on to lead. Truly a sliding doors moment.

The autonomy of my daily commute (traffic congestion and all) kept me going, kept me sane, at a time when I hardly had any autonomy in my overall life.

This, writ large, is central, I would content, to the story of the automobile. The car has offered autonomy to generation after generation of people who have little autonomy at all in their lives. People who have bosses telling them what to do. Who have wives or husbands telling them what to do. Who have kids telling them what to do, and/or where to go. Parents still telling them what to do. Who have law enforcement officers telling them what to do. Tax collectors telling them what to do. Journalists telling them what to do.

Very few people have much autonomy at all. Even the most powerful CEO has a board and activist investors telling him or her what to do.

Cars fill the vacuum of our powerlessness. A car does what we tell it. A high performance car can do amazing things if you’re really skilled at telling it what to do. What else responds like that? Maybe a dog (if you’re lucky). No wonder dogs are popular too.

Autonomy. Power. A huge industry. A huge part of the modern world. With its poets (Mr. Berry) and its philosophers (Mr. Pirsig).

But now a new chapter has begun. A chapter entirely antithetical to the chapter that precedes it. With an entirely new vision of what autonomy is and what it means, and with an entirely new version of the American dream on offer.

Autonomously driven vehicles challenge the tenets of everything I’ve written above. They stem from a completely different point of view. Elon Musk and the other proponents of self-driving cars may not even recognize the psychological dimensions of the tale I’ve told. Though Mr. Musk has had his setbacks and challenges along the way he likely has never felt powerless or not in control. He may have never have sought or found autonomy behind the wheel of a car.

Now the autonomy on offer is more time to do email or play Candy Crush or watch the Westeros and the Targaryen’s fight to the bitter death for power – for autonomy.

The dream and crusade of self-driving stems starts in two very different places, both of which in their own right are elemental; firstly, from the technical challenge, and secondly, from the impulse for safety.

The earliest developers of autonomous vehicles, mainly academics at places like Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Bundeswehr University in Munich, wanted to work on automation simply because, like Everest, “it was there”. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, self-driving cars were a thing of science fiction and Hollywood; things that had been imagined but not made real. If you were a budding computer science major with a stash of Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert novels by your bedside, building cars that could drive themselves was the most logical thing in the world you could work on. As the underlying technology hardened and started its journey to commercialization the incoming wave of entrepreneurs (including Elon Musk) logically seized on the safety implications of machine driving – i.e., namely that most car crashes are caused by human error, and that self-driving cars could potentially be safer drivers than humans – as the sales U.S.P. Again, a completely appropriate, noble cause.

Fast forward to 2017 and autonomously driven vehicles are on the cusp of becoming reality; Tesla’s can already sort of drive themselves. (Nobody seems quite sure whether this is really true, or really legal or not, it appears versus, but the debate notwithstanding, it’s a pretty safe bet that in the next few months, and certainly years, self-driving cars will be entirely real and legal.

Self-driving cars will find a ready audience. Every single notable auto-manufacturer believes this to be the case. All of them are working on introducing autonomous vehicles into their fleets. Some will offer cars with full autonomy - Level 4 in the jargon, i.e. no driver attention needed -, some with higher and higher levels of “driver-assist”, but stopping short of Level 4.

Moms, the elderly, the handicapped, the too-busy-to-drive, the early adopters, the tech-geeks, the show-offs, the curious, the I-hate-driving, the I’m-no-good-at-driving, will all no doubt be in the line at the auto-dealer (which might just be your local Macy’s to get a car that can literally drive itself off the lot when they become generally available.

But I wonder how large this audience will be? Specifically, how many men aged 17-50 want to take their hands off the wheel? [Please note; I say “men” with some trepidation. There are obviously many women that like driving, and like the autonomy driving provides, but I would – in an entirely non-scientific way suggest – there are less women than men in the cohort profile I am writing about. I may be entirely wrong, and if that is the case, I beg for your forgiveness].

If I was a betting man I would put my money on there being far fewer 17-50 year old men wanting a self-driving car than Mr. Musk and others believe. Far fewer. For all the reasons I’ve outlined above. The automation of driving will run headlong into the autonomy that driving, in its current form, provides. The sales pitch of safety will be emotive and powerful; some manufactures will try and shame people out of driving. Many drivers will feel that shame and like the parents badgered by their kids into quitting smoking a generation ago will take their hands off the (disappearing) wheel.

But again, I iterate, fewer than imagined.

Currently, the narrative tide is running with the self-driving crowd. Some of the manufacturers and their advocates in the chattering classes see the battle as won. Automation is a done deal. Some believe that the last car to be made with a steering wheel is just around the corner. Some, like Audi, have teams of people working on early-stage ad campaigns to help people think of what to do in a autonomous car and deal with the boredom of the experience Privately, some manufacturers admit they’re not entirely convinced that people will want to stop driving, but they have to develop the technology in case they do; not participating at this crucial stage of market development could leave them far behind if the market did take off.

The narrative though is being pushed by disrupters; new market entrants like Tesla and those within the major established manufacturers who fear (quite rightly) making the mistakes media and music and entertainment businesses did when faced with new technologies and new business models. At the moment few people are putting the case for the defense; for the status quo, for the power of an idea that has driven America and the world for over 100 years, and which I believe has a long way to go – the idea of autonomy.

Both Chuck Berry and Robert Persig spoke to the power of autonomy. Both of them hit a nerve in the general consciousness because they expressed what humans like to do; to drive, to be in control, to master their surroundings, to drive around with no particular place to go, to be at one with their machine. Automation is a powerful force with antecedents that stretch into antiquity and a road ahead that stretches into infinity. But autonomy – “one who gives oneself one’s own law” – predates automation and will still drive man forward until the last man expires. Perhaps in a car crash.












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