The Easiest Way to Make a Self-Driving Automobile

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(Bloomberg) -- Hi everyone, it’s Nate. I turned 33 last year but I still haven’t bothered getting a driver’s license. Here in London, there’s never been much need — our public transit is pretty good, plus our streets are better suited to horses than cars anyway. (Horses were, in my opinion, the original self-driving vehicle.)

It’s also cheaper for me to get a year’s worth of cabs or Ubers than it is to buy and maintain a car (or a horse). For this reason, I’m enormously excited about the prospect of self-driving automobiles in cities. I believe they will be as personal as an Uber, as affordable as public transport, but won’t require I own and run a fuel-guzzling machine that costs £1,000 a year just to insure.

I was pleased to hear that Chris Urmson shared my expectations: this is indeed looking like the future of city transportation. Urmson used to run Google’s autonomous car program, but he’s now the CEO of self-driving car startup Aurora, a company founded in Silicon Valley about a year ago along with CTO Drew Bagnell, who used to be head of perception and autonomy at Uber, and Chief Product Officer Sterling Anderson, who previously headed up Tesla’s autopilot division.

“London's got an amazing public transit system but much of America has not, and a bunch of American systems are run with an incredible government subsidy,” Urmson said at a recent event hosted by one of the company’s backers, Index Ventures. 

“So from a purely economic point of view,” he said, “it seems to me that as soon as you have a fully self-driving, people-moving capability, it will be cheaper than driving your own car and it'll be dramatically less expensive than an Uber or a taxi.” Ownership of vehicles, “should just go,” he said.

Many cities could create self-driving-only lanes in cities, Urmson said, “but I think you have to demonstrate the value first. Much like when the automobile came into being, we didn’t immediately build roads and pave them all. We saw that cars were getting stuck in the mud, so we built better roads.”

It must’ve been amusing for horse-owners in the late-1800s, many of whom were no doubt skeptical of these newfangled motorised alternatives. I pictured a hypothetical scene, in which an 1890 Benz Patent-Motorwagen became wedged in dirt during wet weather, right as a smug gentleman on horseback trotted past, slowing down to make sure the stranded driver noticed his steed’s hooves were proudly uninhibited by the mud. 

Even if the public warms to the idea, and regulators get on board, adoption will be mitigated by how many vehicles can even be manufactured. Traditional automakers and component manufacturers “know their customers,” Urmson said, and had 50 or 100 years of working with similar product cycles and demands. Changing this to accommodate the needs of a whole new breed of design and technological requirement will happen slowly, to avoid bankrupting the brave. 

“If you're an auto executive, it's a very difficult job managing production,” Urmson said. “Your forecasts and predictions of consumption of vehicles has to be spot-on, otherwise you're losing billions of dollars.”

Aurora is just one of many startups vying for a place in an autonomous future (at this year’s Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, you could hardly walk for a minute before seeing another company promoting their self-driving creations.) But all share universal obstacles: regulation, public perception of safety, manufacturing constraints, and cost being just a handful.

I left the event reassured that my dream of never having to drive would come true, but not for some time. And I also thought how much easier it was to produce a self-driving vehicle in the 1800s: just put two horses in a stable with a bottle of champagne and some Barry White, and wait for equine love to blossom.

This article also ran in Bloomberg Technology’s Fully Charged newsletter. Sign up here.

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Tesla defections are mounting. Elon Musk says it’s all part of a plan to flatten management at the electric-car company, but some are skeptical. 

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