Hit enter to search or ESC to close

The art and science of making the impossible come to life

One of the biggest misconceptions about self-driving cars is that we’re going to wake up one day, and they’re going to be everywhere. No matter how well it works in a lab, it can never scale unless someone builds a successful business around it. From shipping to elevators, railroads, electricity, aviation and computers, someone had to take a leap of faith, after which all that followed seemed inevitable.

But nothing is inevitable. The history of science, business, and war is filled with both success and failure. Hollywood focuses on the winners, but the best lessons are learned from those who failed, especially those who persisted and eventually overcame seemingly impossible odds.

I learned that lesson from Roger Bannister, the first man to run a four-minute mile, after which hundreds did it. Bannister inspired me not only to try to break the infamous Cannonball Run driving record, but to persist even after many technical and mechanical roadblocks. Now I see everyone and everything not just through the lens of what’s possible, but of who might take us there.

Tens of billions of dollars have been invested in autonomous technology development, but it’s still unclear who will be the Thomas Edison or George Westinghouse of our time. Which companies will make it? What are the characteristics common to successful leaders of the past, and what can we learn from them?

On this episode of No Parking, Bryan & I sat down with Neal Bascomb, author of one of my favorite books, the Roger Bannister biography The Perfect Mile. He also wrote Faster, Hunting Eichmann, The New Cool, Higher, The Winter Fortress, The Escape Artists and Red Mutiny. Bascomb’s protagonists design robots, race cars, fly fighters, escape POW camps, bomb Nazi power plants, and build the world’s tallest skyscrapers, but his stories are united not by what they do, but by how they think.

Persistence is everything, says Bascomb, who is fascinated “not only by what drives people to do something, but how they achieve it.”

“I think Roger Bannister is such a test case. I mean, just from pure will and aggression I mean, he had that. The desire to win was definitely there. The science part of it, the breaking down of the training regimes was instrumental. Then also bringing this love of what it is to run. I think ultimately [Bannister] was able to do what many people thought was impossible, because he learned the lessons from not only his competitors, but embraced his passion for running again.”

Bascomb’s “heroes” are brilliant, passionate, and courageous, but also mercurial. That’s what it takes to get people to do things they couldn’t do on their own, let alone try, unless united by a common purpose by a strong leader.

“Most of these leaders are not necessarily the most charismatic individuals. Being someone that everyone is just bowled away by personally, it doesn’t really happen. It’s more their intensity of purpose… the level of aggressiveness, the level of ‘I’ll do anything to make this happen. I’m committed. Everyone around me knows that I’m committed.’ That in itself is inspiring to a group of people. I mean, knowing that someone will go through any wall to achieve the mission is everything. It’s a mix of passion and intensity… the clarity of purpose. Not just the ‘we want to do this, but this is exactly what we’re going to do.’ People know that from the very beginning.”
A cable worker balances untethered during construction of the Empire State Building. Neil Bascomb’s Higher chronicles the bitter race between two of Manhattan’s architects to build the tallest building in the world. Walter Chrysler, building the rival Chrysler Building at the same time, was reportedly more diligent about the safety of his workers having learned his trade on the automobile assembly line.
(Lewis Hine / Wikipedia)

Choose your lane

How Autonomous Vehicles Distinguish Between Bicycles and People Who Ride Them

How Autonomous Vehicles Distinguish Between Bikes and People

When it comes to how autonomous vehicles see the world, humans come first, literally. Autonomous vehicles (AVs), like the kind operated by Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, use Machine Learning to detect and classify the objects in their surroundings, identifying people...
Why The League of American Bicyclists is optimistic about autonomous vehicles

Why a Leading Cycling Advocacy Group Is Optimistic About Autonomous Vehicles

As autonomous vehicle use grows, AV companies and the League of American Bicyclists are collaborating on how to ensure cyclists and motorists can share the roads safely, even if the “motorist” is artificial intelligence software. As part of the...

Self-Driving Is Arriving Right On Time. Just Like Ice Cream Did

Seven years ago, I was a self-driving skeptic. Not of the technology. Of all the “experts” promising autonomous vehicles would be everywhere by 2020. You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to know that was ridiculous. All you needed was...
Illustration of a futuristic parking deck turned into a mixed-use space, with AVs driving by

How Autonomous Vehicles Could Help Transform Parking Lots

Researchers say it’s likely that autonomous vehicles (AVs) can help reduce the need for parking lots, opening more room for grass and trees and other elements of nature. It may not seem like it when you’re circling the block...
An illustration of an Argo autonomous vehicle in teal against a backdrop of buildings, a bicyclist, and research papers

7 Big Breakthroughs From Argo Research at CVPR 2022

The 2022 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR 2022) is nearly here. Thousands of computer scientists, software engineers, and researchers from around the globe will gather in New Orleans to review and discuss their latest work in...

Researchers Predict the Future With Lidar Data

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research, a private-public partnership funded by Argo for advancing the autonomous-vehicle (AV) field, say they have come up with a way to use lidar data to visualize not...

Must Reads