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Autonomous Cars Aren’t Cars At All

With the advent of the autonomous car, pioneered by Carnegie Mellon and fueled by Google and Mercedes-Benz; and capturing the imagination of technologists, urban planners, and developers globally, it’s easy to assume that it is just an enhanced version of the automobile. In fact, the automobile has played such a visible role in the shaping of our cities, has held a longstanding spot as a top status symbol in most cultures globally, and has remained relatively unchanged in design since it’s inception.

It would be a mistake to assume that the autonomous vehicle will simply be a car that is retrofitted with autonomous features. While this may be the case at first, and is certainly the case today with semi-autonomous features currently available as options on most high-end automobiles, the innovation curve fueled by technology continues to accelerate and will launch a new breed of autonomous vehicles that will not be car-like at all.

Indeed, “autonomous” transport for the masses is a paradigm shift that will transcend the type of vehicle, with “access to autonomy for the masses” as the key tipping point.

We’ve had autonomous trains for years and there has been impressive autonomy built-in to commercial aircraft for years. The key however, is autonomy amongst machines that interact with one another and don’t have either a predetermined flight path or railway. Trains and airplanes operate in a relatively simple vacuum with limited parameters and potential interaction making applying autonomy to these types of systems considerably easier and more predictable.

Ultimately, once autonomous vehicles become mainstream and reach scale, the symphony of vehicle-to-vehicle interaction, connectivity to real-time routing and road conditions, decommissioning of many of the traffic signals, removal of un-needed impediments like stop signs and merge areas, and integration into the shared economy, autonomous vehicles will begin to exhibit a train more so than an automobile.

It’s reminiscent of building and re-building a train set as a boy, wherein I could make split second decisions about the route of my battery operated train by reconfiguring the tracks, even while the train was in motion. While my toy train would always reach it’s destination, the journey was always different, and as long as I laid the track down quick enough as the train was advancing, my Superman action figure was oblivious to the fact that he was riding on a track that was being built in real time.

With the security of mind and predictability of travel by rail it’s apparent that autonomous vehicles will indeed exhibit a train more-so than an automobile. With software the new “virtual rails” that not only ensure the journey is as quick as possible, but also provides the same level of safety that we’d expect from a train.

Companies born from technology and with no strings attached to the automotive industry are starting to explore the future of autonomy beyond the automobile. With Google experimenting with all electric, app summoned, pods that will usher you to your destination; no steering wheel, no driver, definitely not an automobile. It will be interesting to see how the automobile industry responds, as autonomous cars may not be cars at all.

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