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Autonomy, sometimes

Benedict Evans raises a number of good points and asks a bunch of good questions about the “steps to autonomy” in his recent blog post.

Right now we’re all talking about autonomous vehicles in terms of their level of autonomy – namely 1 through 5. L1 is some degree of autonomy, but in almost all situations, you still need a human driver. L5 is no human driver needed, ever.

But as Evans points out, the level of autonomy depends on the place, and it is unlikely – at least initially – that L4 or L5 will mean L4 or L5 in all environments. Here is an excerpt from his post:

It naturally follows that we will have vehicles that will reliably reach a given level of autonomous capability in some (‘easy’) places before they can do it everywhere. These will have huge safety and economic benefits, so we’ll deploy them – we won’t wait and do nothing at all until we have a perfect L5 car that can drive itself around anywhere from Kathmandu to South Boston. And so, if we call a car even L4, we have to say, well, where are we talking about? We might mean ‘most of this country’. But more probably, it will be L4 in one neighborhood, L3 in another and only L2 in a third – and a car might encounter all three of those on one journey. Put your route into the map and it will tell you if today is an L5 day or not.

Thinking about the Gartner Hype Cycle, there’s often (always?) a “peak of inflated expectations”, as well as a chasm that new technologies need to cross as they are being adopted.

Benedict’s article reminded me that we’re probably coming off that peak with autonomous vehicles and about to enter the so-called “trough of disillusionment.” 

Autonomous vehicles represent a monumental shift in mobility, which will in turn impact our cities. That’s going to seem like an insurmountable challenge – until it doesn’t.

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