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Opinion

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 some common sense.

By the time I was proven right, I was one year on the job at one of the few self-driving companies that hadn’t made silly promises, and I’d gotten pretty good at answering the most common question I got at dinner parties: so when will self-driving actually arrive?

Self-driving will arrive when it’s ready, I said. 

Well, it’s 2022, and self-driving is starting to arrive right now. Argo is testing driverless cars in Austin and Miami during the daytime. Another company offers driverless rides in Phoenix 24 hours a day, and is about to expand in San Francisco. But successful businesses aren’t magic, because arrival is never a date. Arrival is the span of time starting when the first customers try something new, and it ends with ubiquity, which is when kids take it for granted.

And self-driving has a long road to ubiquity.

The good news is all this has happened before, and will happen again. Look at the history of planes, trains, ships, bicycles, cars, and elevators. Ubiquity used to take centuries, but is now measured in decades, or even years. The more you know about the history of things we take for granted, the more obvious it is that nothing happens overnight. Invention does not equal innovation. No matter how hard it seems to invent a new widget, it’s a lot easier than innovation, which is the art and science of finding product/market fit, reliably mass producing widgets at scale, and selling them to happy customers at a profit.

Innovation is the only bridge from invention to ubiquity. That fuzzy zone between the two things history remembers — that long and often indirect journey of a product across the bridge — is what science fiction author William Gibson was describing when he said The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. We like dates, predictability, certainty, optimism. People don’t like to hear maybe, or soon, or be patient. We often want to pretend innovation isn’t necessary, or doesn’t exist at all, because the sweat and teamwork required don’t glow like the popular myth of the lone inventor, and the day their widgets changed the world.

Cliches romanticize and simplify how we think about technology, and what we unrealistically expect of new ones. A moment of sudden realization, enlightenment, or inspiration is referred to as a “lightbulb moment” — but what’s the symbol or cartoon equivalent for innovation? There isn’t one, which is why when unrealistic expectations meet reality, it’s so easy for the loudest optimists to become pessimists. Because they can’t see the measured, deliberate roots of innovation growing right in front of them, they assume a problem with the invention itself.

Even lightbulbs didn’t emerge from a single lightbulb moment.

But Why Aren’t Self-Driving Cars HERE Yet?

I recently got a new question, and it wasn’t a friendly one: why aren’t self driving cars here yet? It’s an interesting question, because baked into it is the idea that self-driving is supposed to be everywhere, all at once, and that if it isn’t, it’s late and something is wrong.

How would I have answered that question in the past …say…100 years ago?

The answer lies in ice cream.

Self-driving technology is a lot like ice cream. All the ingredients necessary to make ice cream existed for centuries, but if you wanted to eat it, you needed to be where conditions were optimal. The key word in ice cream is ice. You couldn’t eat ice cream any further than ice could be transported without melting.

Was this a flaw in the concept of ice cream? Of course not.

Ice cream was a great product for 2000+ years. All it needed for ubiquity were a few enabling technologies, like electricity, refrigeration, trucks, trains, and a nationwide network of roads and tracks. Every one of those required decades to centuries of development, and even once they were completed, innovation was required to glue them together into all the businesses required to seamlessly make, package, store, transport, market and profitably sell ice cream to happy people everywhere.

If there’s a milk shortage, or a truck gets a flat tire, or the power goes out at the plant, or on the truck, or in the store whose freezer shelves are lined with pints in every flavor, someone isn’t getting their ice cream. Melted ice cream isn’t a small problem. It’s the problem, because customers don’t want excuses. They want their ice cream.

Self-driving is no different. Building a few safe self-driving vehicles is one thing. Operating a fleet that will reliably show up in one neighborhood? Or citywide, on-time, every time? These are not technology problems, these are innovation goals. A lot of things that have nothing to do with self-driving technology have to happen first, like expanding the fleet size, and the supply chain to support it at scale.

Every successful business is ultimately about meeting expectations, because one bad customer experience is often a lost customer. People respect honesty, and the honest people in self-driving have been saying the same thing all along: we’ll deploy them when they’re ready. We’ll deploy them when they’re reliable. We’ll deploy them when they can be trusted.

That day is here. Not everywhere, and not all the time, but that’s exactly as it should be.

Are self-driving cars late? I’d say they’re arriving right on time.

Because I’d rather have no ice cream than melted ice cream.

Alex Roy loves board games, driving, self-driving, and commuting in his Tesla. He is also the Director of Special Operations at Argo AI, host of the No Parking & Autonocast podcasts, editor-at-large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He held the Cannonball Run record from 2006-2013. You may follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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