Yesterday, Google launched Chromecast, a streaming solution for integrating mobile devices with TV, part of another salvo against Apple. Google vs. Apple has been the hot story now in Silicon Valley for a couple of years. Before that, Google vs. Facebook. Before that, Google vs. Microsoft. Technology loves narrative, and setting up a battle of titans always gets the crowd worked up.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the next fight Google might be inadvertently setting up, and wondering whether they are ready for it.
Self-Driving Cars or Self-Driving Trucks
It turns out I’m not the only one who noticed that Google’s incredible push for self-driving cars actually has more likely applications around trucking. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal wrote an excellent piece about Catepillar’s experiments using self-driving mining trucks in remote areas of Australia. It had the provocative headline:
This is the first piece in the mainstream media that I’ve seen connecting the dots from self-driving cars to trucking, even with a lightweight reference to the Teamsters at the end.
Ubiquitous, autonomous trucks are “close to inevitable,” says Ted Scott, director of engineering and safety policy for the American Trucking Associations. “We are going to have a driverless truck because there will be money in it,” adds James Barrett, president of 105-rig Road Scholar Transport Inc. in Scranton, Pa.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters haven’t noticed yet, or at least, all searches I performed on their site for keywords like “self driving”, “computer driving”, “automated driving”, or even just “Google” revealed nothing relevant about the topic. But they will.
Massive Economic Value
The statistics are astonishing. A few key insights:
- Approximately 5.7 million Americans are licensed as professional drivers, driving everything from delivery vans to tractor-trailers.
- Roughly speaking, a full-time driver with benefits will cost $65,000 to $100,000 or more a year.
- In 2011, the U.S. trucking industry hauled 67 percent of the total volume of freight transported in the United States. More than 26 million trucks of all classes, including 2.4 million typical Class 8 trucks operated by more than 1.2 million interstate motor carriers. (via American Trucking Association)
- Currently, there is a shortage of qualified drivers. Estimated at 20,000+ now, growing to over 100,000 in the next few years. (via American Trucking Association)
Let’s see. We have a staffing problem around an already fairly expensive role that is the backbone of a majority of freight transport in the United States. That’s just about all the right ingredients for experimentation, development and eventual mass deployment of self-driving trucks.
Rise of the Machines
In 2011, Andy McAfee & Erik Brynjolfsson published the book “Race Against the Machine“, where they describe both the evidence and projection of how computers & artificial intelligence will rapidly displace roles and work previously assumed to be best done by humans. (Andy’s excellent TED 2013 talk is now online.)
The fact is, self-driving long haul trucking addresses a lot of the issues with using human drivers. Computers don’t need to sleep. That alone might double their productivity. They can remotely be audited and controlled in emergency situations. They are predictable, and can execute high efficiency coordination (like road trains). They will no doubt be more fuel efficient, and will likely end up having better safety records than human drivers.
Please don’t get me wrong – I am positive there will be a large number of situations where human drivers will be advantageous. But it will certainly no longer be 100%, and the situations where self-driving trucks make sense will only expand with time.
Google & Unions
Google has made self-driving cars one of the hallmarks of their new brand, thinking about long term problems and futuristic technology. This, unfortunately, is one of the risks that goes with brand association around a technology that may be massively disruptive both socially & politically.
Like most technology companies in Silicon Valley, Google is not a union shop. It has advocated in the past on issues like education reform. It wouldn’t be hard, politically, to paint Google as either ambivalent or even hostile to organized labor.
Challenges of the Next Decade
The next ten years are likely to look very different for technology than the past ten. We’re going to start to see large number of jobs previously thought to be safe from computerization be displaced. It’s at best naive to think that these developments won’t end up politically charged.
Large companies, in particular, are vulnerable to political action, as they are large targets. Amazon actually may have been the first consumer tech company to stumble onto this issue, with the outcry around the loss of the independent bookstore. (Interesting, Netflix did not invoke the same reaction to the loss of the video rental store.) Google, however, has touched an issue that affects millions of jobs, and one that historically has been aggressively organized both socially & politically. The Teamsters alone have 1.3 million members (as of 2011).
Silicon Valley was late to lobbying and political influence, but this goes beyond influence. We’re now getting to a level of social impact where companies need to proactively envision and advocate for the future that they are creating. Google may think they are safe by focusing on the most unlikely first implementation of their vision (self-driving cars), but it is very likely they’ll be associated with the concept of self-driving vehicles.
I’m a huge fan of Google, so maybe I’m just worried we may see a future of news broadcasts with people taking bats to self-driving cars in the Google parking lot. And I don’t think anyone is ready for that.