Self-driving car simulator at Living Computers Museum and Lab

Top 7 Takeaways about Autonomous Cars

From Seed & Feed: Driving the Revolution

Wednesday evening saw around 100 curious folks pile into the Living Computers Museum and Lab in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood. The subject was one of great and growing curiosity—autonomous cars, and the myriad ways they’ll effect our lives.

As part of our Seed & Feed speaker series, we were fortunate to assemble a truly visionary panel of speakers for a wide-ranging and somewhat oracular discussion. Ross Reynolds of KUOW moderated with aplomb and insight.

Here are the top 7 takeaways from that conversation:

#1: Nothing will stop them from coming—and soon:

Panelists foresee driverless cars in limited capacities in as soon as the next 12 months, and fully automated (like, push a button and go to sleep) within 15 or so years. Most car manufacturers are shooting for fully autonomous by 2021.

Tom Alberg, co-founder and Managing Director of Madrona Venture Group, legendary local venture capitalist and early Amazon investor, is particularly bullish. “Nothing is going to stop it. It’s inevitable. I think we’re underestimating the rapid innovation and invention that’s occurring.”

#2: Autonomous Cars will be Safer than Human Drivers

“Autonomous vehicles will not get drunk. They will not get distracted. They will not get angry,” Tom pointed out. This year, more than 50,000 Americans will die in traffic fatalities. Globally, that number is two million. The tipping point when autonomous vehicles become prevalent may be when the most dangerous thing on the road is a car with a human driver.

Panelists (L to R), Mark Hallenbeck, Shefali Raganathan, John Lass and Tom Alberg

#3 Autonomous cars can augment mass transit

Shefali Ranganathan described an equitable transportation future where autonomous vehicles enhance transit options. Shefali is Executive Director of Transportation Choices. She’s been there for nearly a decade, shaping priorities and implementing programs from policy and education to program evaluation and fundraising.

“Everyone expects us to be opposed to autonomous cars. That’s simply not true. We see them as part of the equation. When we build out mass transit, how are we going to get to that system? How can this new mobility be part of another option for people to get to where they want to go?”

Shefali Ranganathan makes a point

#4 Government and public sector need to ensure an equitable rollout

Shefali also pointed out that people are counting on the government and the public sector to ensure that people have equitable access to this new transportation system. That might be through regulations, subsidies or a voucher system. Part of it is also ensuring that, if you don’t have a smartphone or you don’t speak English, that’s not a barrier to being able to access this mobility.

John Lass agreed, saying it will take unique collaboration between government, automobile manufacturers, technology sector, insurers. John is Founder & President of Lass Advisory Services LLC. Until recently he was a consultant with the prestigious Boston Consulting Group. Now he helps various industries think through a world disrupted by autonomous vehicles.

The collaboration John describes may seem daunting, but US congress passed the self-drive act in the last two weeks, which lifted many regulatory issues from the state level up to the federal level. Now, instead of dealing with 50 different protocols, it’s more likely that a business can deal with one. In this political environment, that gives him hope.

#5 The concept of car ownership will change dramatically

There will be two distinct ownership models that will develop based on the density of areas, said Mark Hallenbeck. Mark is Director of Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC) at the University of Washington. For 32 years he’s helped decision-makers make data-driven major transportation and land use investment decisions.

A good proxy for the dividing line, he said, is along places where you either have to pay for parking or where parking is free. In these dense areas, where you have to pay for parking, the cars will be fleet owned (by companies such as Uber, Lyft or GM). In less dense areas, like some suburbs and rural areas, people will own their own autonomous cars.

Mark Hallenbeck speaks

#6 Fewer cars will be needed—and car usage will cost less

Optimization will have huge efficiency gains, Mark also pointed out. MIT recently did a study where they took point to point ride data in Manhattan from cab companies and rideshare giants Uber and Lyft over the course of a week. There were 25,000 cars involved in moving people around. MIT concluded that even with a minimal amount of optimization, they could have moved all those passengers with 3,000 cars.

At the same time, Tom asserts, cost of car usage, let alone ownership, is going to come down significantly.

John questioned the current paradigm of car ownership, saying that it isn’t good for anyone. “Twenty per cent of consumer spending is on cars or something related like insurance or gas. That’s not really a great solution from a societal standpoint. Morgan Stanley estimates that, even initially, when you have a modest number of autonomous vehicles on the road, the savings just in the US will exceed a trillion dollars in terms of fewer accidents, less congestion, more productivity. People may say, boy, I don’t want to give up my car. But, is this really a good solution that we have today? I think not.”

#7 Human Behavior is the X Factor

What we understand least about the upcoming change is human behavior, Mark said. “If you can sleep your way into work, why wouldn’t you live in Cle Elum?” There will be a whole lot of incentives to act differently—and we don’t understand the behavioral changes that will happen. Right now living in urban areas is the cool thing and suburban areas are less in vogue. Will that change back? (That is a question Forterra is paying particular attention to.)

With the idea of autonomous vehicles predicated on predictability, Shefali asked, “How do you get a public that has lived the paradigm where the car has been king. Now you’re asking these same humans to trust their kids, their lives to these computers. Will they accept it?”