Episode 115 - Driverless!!
Published October 21, 2014
SPECIAL GUEST: Ersan Seer (futurist/coolhunter, marketing consultant). The advent of the automobile changed society in ways both profound and trivial. Now we're standing on the cusp of an even more dramatic change in transportation, the advent of driverless cars. On this episode, we're joined by futurist Ersan Seer to dig into the reshaping of society that this technological transformation will have on us, everything from how we work to how we play. Recorded 10/18/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Ersan Seer on the web
Ersan Seer on Twitter
Ersan Seer on Facebook
Google's Cars will change everything, by Ersan Seer (Driverless Cars - Part 1/6)
How Future Autonomous Cars will change travel, by Ersan Seer (Driverless Cars - Part 2/6)
Automated Vehicles will change how we work, by Ersan Seer (Driverless Cars - Part 3/6)
Automated Cars will redefine "Home", by Ersan Seer (Driverless Cars - Part 4/6)
Design & Technology of Autonomous Vehicles of the Future, by Ersan Seer (Driverless Cars - Part 5/6)
Consequences of Intelligent Transport; The Good & the Bad, by Ersan Seer (Driverless Cars - Part 6/6)
Episode 17 - Robot Cars!, our 2012 episode on driverless cars
Episode 99 - Five Star Auto!, where we talked with Josh Corman (IAmTheCavalry.org) about security on car computer systems
Autonomous car on Wikipedia
Google self-driving car on Wikipedia
Google Self-Driving Car Project home page
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #115. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And today we are joined by Ersan Seer. Ersan is a futurist consultant, coolhunter, market researcher, strategic advisor and concept artist. Ersan, thanks for joining us.
Ersan Seer: Thank you for having me.
MJ: Could you tell us, for our audience, a little bit about your background, like how you became a futurist and coolhunter?
ES: Yeah, to be honest, the way I became a futurist was I faked it until I made it. I had a long history of reading science fiction and fantasy, so it was almost like I was actually a futurist before I knew it. Then one day I realized “Hey, there’s a label for someone like me, who habitually thinks about the future and is fascinated by it.” But in terms of actually being a practicing futurist, I just put up a website, put up a blog, started practicing concept art and perspective sketching and all of that stuff, and then one day I started getting inquiries for freelance work for my website and I just kept saying “Yeah, I can do that,” and if I couldn’t do it, I figured out how really quickly, and then that brings us to today. I am now doing some consulting work on the side. I specialize in marketing, but I like to keep my futurist blog going because that’s what makes me happy.
MJ: On your site, you’ve got a six-article series now about driverless cars, which is one of our favorite topics and certainly we’d like to talk to you a little bit more about that. So, how did that series come about?
ES: You know, there’s something about being a futurist, and you guys will probably appreciate this, especially if you’re musicians or artists, it’s almost like you’re on call and you’re waiting for inspiration to hit. All you really have to do is be aware of it when it does hit. One day, I read something about Google’s driverless cars, and in about two minutes my mind just went nuts thinking about “Oh my God, this will probably mean this. And if that happens, then that will probably mean this. Or it could mean this,” and my mind just kind of works through the possibilities. Then I obsess about it for a couple of weeks and I start to see some really big, substantial patterns in the way technology is moving towards certain directions, and I get to a point where I say “You know what? I’m pretty sure we’re going to go this direction, so now I have to write about it and I have to share it to the world because it’s so exciting,” and that’s what happened with driverless cars. I was turned on to it by Google and then I went from there. I just let my imagination loose on it and I created some concept art and some articles on it. I’m not even sure the major manufacturers are thinking yet about some of the stuff that I’ve been thinking about. But yeah, I’ll be happy to tell you about that stuff in this conversation.
MJ: You touched on a number of areas. We first talked about driverless cars way back in our 17th episode actually. That was in 2012, and just how much it’s really changed since then -- you touched on a number of ways that society is going to change in your six articles, and I think people in general just really aren’t thinking about those yet.
ES: That’s a very good point. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to a very successful businessman. He’s a friend of the family, I’m not going to name drop, but he’s kind of a futurist too, and he’s an older guy. He told me “Ersan, your visions are way too far out. People don’t care about even 5, 10 years from now because they just can’t handle it.” He said “If you can tell people what’s happening within the next three years, then you will be valuable to society.” But still, I think that’s kind of a more traditionalist mentality I think, as you guys will probably agree. There’s kind of a new thing emerging, being futurist or transhumanist and it’s almost becoming a popular thing. I think within 5 to 10 years, people are going to be marketing themselves as a futurist, kind of like today everyone markets themselves as an SEO, or Search Engine Optimizer. The reality is most of them aren’t very good at it, and the reality is most people aren’t going to be very good at futurism. But to get back on track, I think people will find this stuff exciting. Even if it’s not immediately relevant to them, it will be soon. As we all know, time moves really fast and before we know it, it’s ten years from now. So, I like to kind of keep people ahead of the curve and just plant these seeds. The other thing is if I bring these things up early enough, then maybe someone else will see it and kind of spread the idea and bring it to fruition. In that sense, I almost feel like I’m helping to design the future, and that’s really exciting to me.
MJ: Well, and it’s not as simple as just replacing the driver of a car with a robot and the car’s going the same route. You touched on a couple of ways that really people are already using their cars as mobile offices. I know Matt would probably agree with me, we see people all the time on the road putting on makeup or texting; despite laws against that, they do it anyway. Some of the things you touched on in your article about how drunk driving could change, and we talked about this as well around driverless cars -- I don’t think your average person is really thinking about that, and it seems like the legal system is going to be out of phase with how this technology shifts society.
ES: You introduced about three different really important topics here. The first thing is there is an epidemic of distracted driving. I don’t have the exact numbers on hand, but everyone knows, especially if they look at their own actions through the past 5 to 10 years, I guarantee people are texting a lot more on their phone while they’re driving, or they’re scheduling appointments, they’re dialing phone numbers. In fact, it’s kind of funny, I have been keeping an informal count of how many people I see just when I’m stopped at a stoplight. I have different criteria; I’m stopped at a stoplight, and it’s not like stop-and-go traffic but it’s actually stopped to where they have a good 30 seconds, and I just look to my left and my right, I don’t look all around, and I see that person, are they looking down and doing something that I can’t see what they’re doing? Are they actually looking at their phone and messing with it? Or are they being diligent and looking straight ahead and waiting for the light to turn. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kind of a, not aggressive, but an assertive driver. I get annoyed when people just sit there at the stop light and the wait ten seconds before they go when it turns green. I always give them a little nudge, a little honk. I’ve noticed that increasing, and I think it’s because of phones. These mobile phones are becoming so valuable for people that they actually cannot help but use these phones while they’re driving. What that really tells us about driverless cars is that people feel in their psyches that driving is kind of like a waste of time, or driving is something that they could use that time more valuably. In fact, some of research that I’ve done, the government census says that people spend in the United States, on average, about an hour driving every day, which is a lot of time. I think people are ready to utilize that time to get work done.
MB: I totally agree. In fact, when you were talking -- I’ve noticed a massive increase in the number of times I use my horn at traffic lights now, just because people are reading emails or whatever, and you can always, when you’re driving, usually spot somebody who’s texting because the car is usually going slow and weaving all over the road. But yeah, driving really is a waste of time. It’s just literally a way to get some place and I don’t think most people, especially in high traffic areas, don’t enjoy driving at all. It’s just one of those things, “Hey, I’ve got to go to the grocery store.” If there was a good way to get what I need from the grocery store to my house without me having to leave or whatever, people would do that. So yeah, I think the driverless car, even if it’s just a short trip to the grocery store, if you can do something else that’s more fun or not have to worry about driving, all you do is pop in the car and wait until you get there, it’d make things better.
ES: People will do it. They’re already trying to do it, and that’s kind of the key. They’ll go even further than that. Once people realize “I can get work done while I’m driving,” then some people, a segment of the population, is going to start doing that more and more. For instance, I live in Denver, and someone who lives in Denver might say “Hey, my driverless car is capable of going 300 mph” inside of what’s called vacuum tube -- well, they call them vactrains now, which is a combination of magnetic levitation, which is already a technology they’re using for trains, and a vacuum tube, which is a tube kind of like what you see at the bank, where you put your deposit in the tube and then it whisks it up. They’re developing that technology now and theoretically it could go a lot faster than 300 mph, but I was just being a little conservative. You might wait in line with your car for 5 to 10 minutes, you’re sitting there on your computer, you’re typing, you’re getting work done, then it moves you into the tube from Denver to Sacramento, 1,200 miles. It sends you there 300 mph an hour, and that’s 4 hours. So, you could work while you’re traveling for four hours and meet a really big client there, have lunch with them and then after lunch you come back and you’re home in time for dinner. When you start thinking about it from that perspective, you realize “Wow, this technology, it’s not just about sitting in your car while it’s driving you around. It’s going to completely change how we work.”
MB: I think a lot of laws have to catch up with all of the driverless cars and things. To me, that seems like a bigger roadblock because you’re essentially changing literally how everything works. You’re not going to need nearly as many police officers, because nobody is going to be speeding. The car is just going to go at a certain speed until it gets where it needs to go. You’re not going to have DUIs, you’re probably not going to have nearly as many accidents.
MJ: A lot of those laws too, they don’t make sense for driverless cars. If you have a car that can go 300 mph, having a speed limit of 35 mph is insane.
ES: Absolutely. I think we have those speed limits because of human error. Once we remove that from the equation, we’ll be able to go a lot faster a lot more efficiently, traffic will be a lot less because it will be optimized; our cars will be communicating with other cars and they’ll be relaying their expectations, like “Hey, we’re going to stop by Starbucks and then after that we’re going to go to work, which is 13 miles southeast from here.” They’re all going to communicate and we’re going to have the most optimal system you can have. We will probably still have traffic, because once space opens up and more people will move in and buildings will continue to build upward -- I think we’re probably always still going to have traffic, but we’ll be able to fit in more people and more productivity into one little urban area. But in terms of what are the legal ramifications of all of this, I actually spent the last 3 years at a law firm, I was in charge of their online marketing, and I got a good sense of how the legal industry works. My opinion is that it’s going to actually develop slowly. I think the biggest barrier to driverless car technology is going to be the lawsuits, because if you think about it, if you’re in a car that’s able to go 300 mph and something happens, maybe the rail, there’s damage on it, or somehow a squirrel gets into the tube, something goes wrong -- you cannot really mitigate damage much in this situation. That’s kind of the standard today. They do all of these crash tests; basically, when you get in a car crash, they design technology around the fact that you’re almost likely going to get into a car crash sooner or later, how to mitigate or lessen the damage that happens to you in the car when you do get in the car crash. But you can’t really do much damage mitigation when you’re going 300 mph. You can hit a duck at 300 mph and it will probably be pretty catastrophic. So, what they have to do instead is change the model from damage mitigation to damage prevention. Basically, there’s going to have to be a lot of sensors all over the place. Even if you’re walking around inside your car, which might well be a very big -- almost like an RV, a really big tube. You might have a dishwasher, a vanity, TVs all over the place. If you’re walking around in what is effectively a really fast mobile home and your car detects a squirrel, it’s not going to slam on the breaks. It has to actually communicate with you and say “2 miles ahead, by the way, there’s a squirrel. We’re going to slow down as a precaution,” and it’s going to exert some very light g-forces on you so you don’t fall over and injure yourself and potentially sue the company. So, basically what I’m getting at is there’s so much room here for people to get injured in all kinds of ways, and as soon as they do, what I’ve learned is they’re going to sue the manufacturers. The manufacturers, in turn, will have to come up with very stringent, very accurate safety measures. I think the only way that’s going to happen is if there’s an AI on board that can make really good decisions and differentiate between “Oh, that’s a mouse. We’ll roll over it, we’ll kill it,” which I think you’re supposed to do that legally. If you see a mouse or a squirrel, you’re not supposed to slow down because that might cause someone behind you to hit you or cause a bigger accident. But if that was a human infant, then that’s a totally different issue, you have to slow down. So, I think the only way our cars are going to be able to differentiate between that is if they are artificially intelligent.
MJ: I think that brings up a couple of interesting points right there about the ethics. In our 99th episode, we talked to Josh Corman of “I am the Cavalry,” it’s a group around security, and he talked to us specifically about car computer systems and the hackability of those. I am the Cavalry has proposed this 5-point platform for car systems to be less hackable. They are a computer and information security organization and they’ve specifically gone to the auto industry to say “This is what you guys should be doing.” I think that when you get to self-driving cars, it only goes up that much more. Josh talked to us a little bit about the self-park systems, that even now hackers could use that to take control of the steering and turn the wheel in your hand, the force that they can exert on that is so great that it could break your arms.
ES: Wow. Yeah, it’s more than just that. I mean, they could direct your car, they could, as an April Fool’s prank, hijack a thousand cars and send them off to the middle of Nebraska. There’s so much room here for really smart hackers, who also happen to be antisocial, to come in and mess with people. That’s probably one of the biggest things that worries me, concerns me about the future is not only driverless cars but also within our own body, to start having more electronics, which opens the way for hackers to get in and mess with things. I know that’s a totally different topic for this podcast but the security is going to have to be incredible on driverless cars. Before that’s there -- first of all, the public is going to be very cautious about driverless cars, especially the more conservative politicians. Like I said, I think all the potential for lawsuits is really going to hinder the progress, but then on the other hand, I look at these behemoths like Google and Amazon, they’re totally, shamelessly trudging forward and they are changing our world very fast despite all of the laws. So, I guess if you’re big enough and powerful enough then the laws don’t matter as much. I kind of hope that’s what happens. I know there will be some catastrophic accidents, but I think that eventually we’ll get to a point where accidents are more rare than lightning strikes. I think car travel will be totally reliable. It will be as safe for travel as tap water is for drinking, and everyday millions of people drink tap water and we don’t have any problems because they’ve streamlined the system so well. I think the same thing is going to happen with driverless cars. It’s just going to take us awhile; maybe a couple of decades, maybe even 30 or 40 years from now.
MJ: Matt touched on it a little in one of his questions, the politicians and politics and speeding tickets and things like that, and he and I have talked before about the local governments that are dependent on that for their revenue even.
MB: You always have to look at “Okay, if this technology takes off, who’s going to be out of a job? Because they’re going to throw the biggest fit.” You look at with Uber and Lift right now because all the taxi drivers are up-in-arms. Well, you go to a driverless car, now you’re eliminating not only taxi drivers, because you could turn Uber into a fleet of driverless cars that just drive around and pick people up. But you’re also going to eliminate truck drivers, you’re going to eliminate a lot of need for police officers, because if they’re not patrolling for speeding tickets or DUIs… So, those are the people who are always going to form a lobbying group and try and get their local politician to turn against new technology, and that’s just how it always works. I think the most important thing is to look at “Okay, who are the losers basically in all of this?” Then you have to start looking at truck drivers, taxi drivers, police officers and things like that.
ES: Oh yeah, no doubt about it, there’s going to be some major problems caused by groups --
MB: Even pizza delivery guys.
ES: Yeah, everyone. But if we really dig into this and think about it, I think what we’ll realize is that opposition never fully can halt technological progress. I think probably the most serious example we’ve seen about opposing groups having an impact is probably around pirated music -- Napster, Kazaa, Soulseek, or whatever that program was -- somehow the technology always wins. Really, the consumer wins because they’re stronger than the companies that are attempting to maintain some control so that they can profit off of the people. I think that’s the most serious example of how technology was halted. I think there have been many other examples of where those big companies couldn’t even stand a chance. Basically, I think what’s going to happen is there may be some landmark cases, but ultimately technology is going to keep being developed by the big companies, by the small companies and it’s going to proceed forward, no matter what. If history has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot halt technological progress.
MB: No, you can just slow it down; politicians and lobbying groups are usually pretty good at that. Obviously, I think it’s one of those things that’s a matter of time. It’s not really a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” It’s just how long are they going to poop on the process before it just gets passed?
ES: Right, and they could delay it for 10, 20, 30 years. But I think, in terms of this whole idea of robots replacing humans, replacing taxi drivers, delivery drivers, etc., driverless cars is not going to be the only thing that we’re talking about, because that’s happening across the board. It’s happening today. Even in car manufacturing facilities, people are losing jobs. Some pretty big economists are saying in the near future, robots, AIs are going to replace so many human jobs and, in fact, humans are going to be left kind of sitting around, saying “Okay, what do I do now?” I think that it will be kind of cool actually, assuming everyone can somehow find a way to make a living and eat and not starve. But assuming that the fundamental needs are met, I think people will start to spend more of their time on spiritual, emotional, artistic endeavors, things that in sci-fi we typically associate with a more advanced society. I think people are going to spend more time learning how to be more emotionally intelligent for a more peaceful society. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. But humans will adapt, no matter what. If there’s a dearth of jobs, they will find something else to do to make their time worth it, so I’m not really too worried about all of that.
MJ: Yeah, I certainly hope you’re right. That’s a little bit of what our modus operandi has been on the show. I think it’s funny that some of the objections to the technology sort of rely on almost a moralistic attitude. Take, for example, the idea that you could eliminate drunk driving with a driverless car. There’s a certain segment of people that have that attitude of “Well, you shouldn’t be that drunk, so we should keep these laws the way they are.” But that’s applying a morality that the practical underline for it, of if you’re too drunk to drive, you’re going to kill someone -- if you remove that, well then what does it matter if you’re that drunk, necessarily? Not that I’m endorsing drunkenness necessarily, but.
ES: It’s almost like some really conservative people will say “Well, that’s not really addressing the problem. The problem is the drunk driving itself, and if you find another ‘band-aid’ to put over it, then that’s not addressing the problem, which is you shouldn’t be drunk while you’re driving.” I don’t know, I think that it’s going to change whether or not they grumble and mumble. The fact of the matter is, and I realized this the other day -- I don’t think there’s ever been any popular liberal movement that did not succeed. Can you think of one that did not succeed? Like the move to abolish slavery, women’s suffrage, gay marriage.
MJ: Well, there’s parts of the world that would probably object to that, but.
ES: I’d like to hear of a time when there was a very hot debate where the liberals did not win over time. I actually do not consider myself a liberal or a conservative, because in some areas I’m very conservative and in some areas I’m very liberal. I just think it’s interesting that over time, change or the people who desire change seem to win. In fact, if I remember my history correctly, I think republicans were that same group way back in the beginning. I could be wrong. But I think republicans were the ones who were saying “We need to change,” and they were actually the liberals. But what I’m getting at is this is more fundamental than just “Which side are you, red or blue?” This is more about evolution and change. Humans are masters of evolution. We evolve faster than any of the other species out there, in my opinion. That’s why we’re the top of the food chain. To deny that and to say “No, we’re going to try to keep everything the same as it is,” is kind of funny to me because I know that it’s not going to stay that way. We’re going to change fast, and faster, and faster, and faster. So, whenever there’s a new technology that threatens to disrupt the way people are and the way they live their lives and the way they’re comfortable, I don’t think it matters how they feel. The technology is going to come in and disrupt it, and then they’re going to be happy about it. Then the next generation is going to come and say “I like this, and this is what I’m comfortable with,” and then on and on.
MJ: Yeah. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you Ersan.
ES: The one thing I wanted to talk about was what happens if the world actually becomes fully driverless and people don’t have the ability to drive cars anymore? I have a subscription to probably 8 or 9 of the top auto magazines. Right now, there’s actually a big complaint amongst a lot of car enthusiasts that the automakers are switching from manual to automatic transmissions. How are they going to deal with the fact that they can’t even drive anymore? I don’t know what’s going to happen, but my guess is that we’re still going to be allowed to drive our high performance cars that we worked for 20 years to build up a salary to afford. There’s going to have to be some failsafe, some AI or something that kicks in whenever we make a mistake, and that will save us from endangering our lives and the lives of other people who are potentially going really fast. But I don’t think we’re going to ever lose that option to drive on public roads, just because so many people have expressed concern about this and I think the market is what’s going to drive the technology. So, I don’t think we need to worry about losing the ability to drive. I just think when we mess up, there’s going to be something there to protect us, like a safety net.
MJ: Yeah, like a driver assist.
MB: There’s already, obviously if you’ve been on the road, enough people who can’t drive anyhow, so.
ES: Yeah, they’d be happy just as well not to drive. And I’d be happy if they didn’t drive too.
MJ: Okay Ersan, thanks very much for joining us today.
ES: Thanks for having me, I really enjoyed it.
MB: Thanks a lot.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for our radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode on our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.