Autonomous Cars and the Sketchy NSA

The NSA hits keep on coming

In the past three years we’ve learned more about the NSA than we ever thought we would. And no matter how sketchy they could be in our imaginations, the reality seems to be worse with each new tidbit we receive. But at least they never planned to infect your phone with malware. Oh wait a minute, yeah they did. This week it was revealed that the Irritant Horn app-hijacking program was designed to be transmitted to citizens’ devices through Google Play. It’s unclear if the program was ever actually released, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Irritant Horn was created to intercept traffic and relay information like contacts and real-time location. Nice. Way to treat your citizens like criminals. Speaking of “criminals”, this information comes to us of course from national hero Edward Snowden. In case you missed it, John Oliver’s interview with Snowden is one of the best things we’ve seen. NSFW for language.

Uber futuristic

Uber is about as aggressive as anyone about this whole self-driving car business. After poaching a good portion of Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab, they set up shop right around the corner from CMU, adding insult to research injury. But perhaps in order to quell any anger on CMU’s part, they then announced a partnership with Mellon, and have been making strides in driverless technology ever since. This week they matched Google’s on-road testing of autonomous vehicles with their own tests in Pittsburgh.

So how will this affect your Uber experience? Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said, “the reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car – you’re paying for the other dude in the car.” Eliminating that dude could lead to significant savings on your drive to dinner. Barclays analyst Brian A. Johnson reported that Uber will save about 34 cents a mile without the drivers’ pay, while the cars themselves will cost a whopping 58% less than traditional cars.

But isn’t that other dude half of the key to Uber’s success? See, Uber has a two-sided market. They need drivers to have riders, but they need riders to have drivers. These network effects need to be in place on both sides in each city in which they operate. But as they move closer to a driverless fleet, they’re also moving closer to cutting out one of those sides by replacing their drivers with robots. Since the transition can’t be made instantaneously, how will they keep the remaining drivers happy while they fill each city with autonomous Ubers? It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Nissan’s push to semi-autonomy

Not to be left out, Nissan this week announced they’ll have self-driving cars ready for us by 2020. Well, sort of. While, “autonomous driving features will be a key part of future vehicles, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said today…he said the company doesn’t plan to create a vehicle that is entirely driverless.” Say what? Why not!? What a huge missed opportunity.

Even with a completely autonomous car, Nissan and other manufacturers would be facing an uphill battle against on-demand vehicle services like Uber, Lyft, and ZipCar. Cars bring with them concomitant problems like the need for fuel and insurance, and there’s a phenomenal overhead not only to manufacturing but to owning a car. We think many if not the majority of travelers will start to drift closer toward the on-demand model.

You can see Nissan is thinking “of course, people will still buy cars, and still drive them, they’ll just be smarter” not realizing that the change that happens will be so fundamental it calls even owning a car into question. Nissan’s whole model rests on selling cars, so they start with the assumption (which has to be true in order for them to exist) that people buy cars. But what happens when people stop?

Don’t forget Google

Lest we forget the company that seemed to start the flood of self-driving research, Google’s autonomous vehicles are now ready to roll out in its hometown of Mountain View. Google will release as many as 25 self-driving vehicles into the wilds of Silicon Valley, and these bubble-shaped mini revolutions will help shape the public’s perception of what the autonomous future will look like.

This is by no means the first test Google has had of their self-driving technology. Over the past year and a half (well before anyone else’s public tests) they’ve been quietly testing a small fleet of autonomous SUVs logging 10,000 miles a week.