The demanding environment for autonomous cars
Cruise announced Origin, their shared autonomous car product/concept. It’s absolutely the type of vehicle I imagine would be part of the daily commute of nearly everyone, eventually.
However, they claim that their cars learn to drive in one of the most demanding environments. I find that claim dubious at best since, judging by the marketing photos, they test in San Francisco.
The US is a heaven for cars
US infrastructure by and large is designed for driving. Claiming that driving in the US, and SF in particular, is most demanding is just plain silly. Here’re some reasons that’s the case:
- Roads are wide and by-and-large good
- There’re no motorcycles (or bicycles) (and very few pedestrians most of the time)
- Often streets are in a grid (such as most of San Francisco)
- There’s effectively no weather
- Compliance with road rules is best I’ve encountered
In fact, if I had to design a city to test autonomous driving, San Francisco would be a great starting area. 3/10 difficulty. It has some challenging parts but 95% is ideal for getting started.
The truly demanding
Places like Indonesia and India are actually the most demanding. And it’s because they’re the opposite of all of the above.
- Many roads are very narrow
- There’s a huge number of motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, bajajs and cattle
- Streets are arranged in a seemingly random order
- Rain alone reduces visbility to next to nothing
- Rules for both pedestrians and drivers are largely optional
I highly doubt that Origin would stand a chance here.
And then there’s Europe
Driving infrastructure in Western Europe is decidedly better than that but there’s a growing tendency towards removing it. Particular in cities where this type of vehicle would be useful.
Cities are being redesigned for pedestrians and cyclists. A street that might be a 4 or 6 lane road in the US in Europe is often two lanes for pedestrians, two lanes for public transport and a one way road for cars.
Furthermore, not only are cities being redesigned to reduce car infrastruture but some places are entirely car-free.
The Origin would adapt to this type of environment. In fact it would thrive.
But it’s definitely more demanding.
A few things, actually.
Firstly, I really like this type of vehicle and look forward to it being the norm. I’m very much in favor of the European human-centric city design. And vehicles like this would fit in perfectly.
But, secondly, the pedant in me dislikes this type of marketing. Constantly claiming to be the most and the best irks me to no end. In particular when it’s blatantly not true.
And finally, this is a very straight-forward example of tech widening the gap between the developed and developing areas.
The folks at Cruise are definitely aware of the state of traffic in other countries. But it’s just not important to them. Their vehicles are tested in the most demanding environements that are relevant to their business.
Their target market is the US. And San Francisco might have autonomous on-demand transport in the next couple of years as a result of their efforts. Jakarta might not have it in 50 years.
Developed areas are more profitable (for now) and creating solutions for developing nations is very difficult. So, from a business perspective it’s of course justified, But it definitely doesn’t sit right.
I appreciate that there are efforts to address this. But initiatives such as creating a “public Venmo” are just putting a band-aid on the symptoms. They do nothing to address the gap.
What should be done? I don’t know, yet.
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