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I figured out how to bootstrap self-driving cars

June 16, 2014

I was originally somewhat enthusiastic about the possibilities for self-driving cars, because (in theory), they would make it much easier to carpool and/or run point-to-point transit instead of one-large-size-fits-all buses on inflexible routes.

But then, I thought about how much these cars would initially cost, and who their initial market would be. Early adopters are not buying this to carpool; they’re buying it so that they can get work done on their horrible long commutes.

And then I read that Google thus far had only made it work by mapping Mountain View down to the last detail, and mapping is labor-intensive. Getting the rest of the country mapped is going to be costly. On the other hand, with their algorithm, unless you have the data, you don’t have a self-driving car. How convenient for Google. But how to get the data?

And then I realized that it gets back to the first customers — if their main value from the car is for their daily commute, which is repetitive (probably) long, if a self-driving car is instrumented well enough to record the route, the early adopters will buy the cars, train it for their commute, and it will ship the road data to the mother ship. After some small number of training runs the car can drive itself — not everywhere, but on the commute, and for each early customer, that is what is important.

Note that this is far from the crazy utopian vision of self-parking-finding cars that deal with that particular hassle, and it’s not cars traveling bumper-to-bumper in an energy- and road-space conserving pack, and it’s not cars automatically negotiating their way through signal-free intersections — it’s for the commute. Eventually this will lead to enough mapped roads to actually count as “coverage”, and people will be able to buy cars and expect that they’ll know the way. But I don’t think that the cars will be programmed to optimize road use or energy consumption. Recall who is buying them and what for — the most likely goal is to drive in a way that someone riding inside and using a laptop or reading a book will not get carsick.

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