Friday, May 15, 2015

Driving Technologies...

"You can never change things by fighting the existing reality... you can only change things by creating a new model that makes the existing model obsolete"

                 ~ R. Buckminster Fuller

This week, I experienced two events that might have seemed similar but were, in actuality, quite different.

On Monday, due to some flight delays, my arrival into Toronto was running about an hour behind schedule.  I had planned to meet my new customer for dinner that night at 6:00, but it soon became apparent that there was no way that I’d be at the restaurant before 7:30.

To make matters worse, I had made the decision to rent a car to  Traffictransport me from the airport to the Toronto suburbs and that evening’s rush-hour traffic was unbearable making the normally 15 minute drive extend to about an hour. 

In addition, I completely forgot that my cell phone’s data plan didn’t actually work in Canada meaning that my normally reliable GPS app in my phone wasn’t working for me either.

Fortunately, I eventually found the restaurant but not before arriving some two hours later than I had originally planned.

As I was heading into the restaurant, I happened to look down at my phone and noticed that I had a multitude of e-mails, text messages, and missed phone calls. 

Due to the time difference between Toronto and San Diego, my office back in California was still open for the next 20 minutes.  Perhaps I could make a quick call to them just to answer a few important issues before I actually went into the restaurant.

In the end, I decided that I had already inconvenienced my client too much so I went into the restaurant without making any calls or returning any e-mails.  

All throughout our dinner, I had this overwhelming urge to pick up my phone and start returning important emails and text messages (but I restrained myself).

A few days later, I now found myself in Las Vegas to attend a national trade show / conference.

Once again, I found myself running late to a dinner meeting after my flight was delayed.

Due to the fact that most of my meetings were mostly at the same hotel, I decided that renting a car and driving Taximyself to the hotel didn’t make much sense.  Therefore when I landed, I quickly found myself in the backseat of a taxi.

The traffic along the Las Vegas Strip is always bad around dinner time, but on this evening it was particularly snarled and my cab was often at a standstill.

The big difference between this experience and the one I had had a few nights before was that I wasn’t the one doing the driving.

I assumed the taxi driver knew exactly where he was going, so I resigned myself to returning emails and phone calls from the back seat.

When I finally arrived at the hotel for dinner, I felt relaxed knowing that I had responded to all of the pending issues facing me.

By utilizing a driver in the second instance, I had allowed myself to be very productive during my drive instead of being stressed from my environment.

As I was heading home the following day, I thought about how much time I waste just driving myself from place to place.

There have been several studies over the past few years to determine exactly how much time the typical American spends driving. 

These studies show that if we commute to work, we end up averaging just over 100 minutes per day driving (or about 75 minutes a day for non-commuters).

Now granted, there are some people who do use the 12 hours a week we spend in a car in a very productive way such as listening to a book on CD or taking the "quiet time" to mentally sort out complex problems, but for the rest of the population driving is simply time wasted.

Enter technology.

In 2005, Sabastian Thrun and his team at Stanford University won the DARPA Grand Challenge and the corresponding $2M prize for successfully demonstrating a robotic self-driving car, "Stanley".

Thrun was no stranger to robotics as he successfully ran the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and was the co-inventor of the technology that would eventually become Google Street View.

In 2008, Thrun was able to convince fellow Stanford graduate and Google co-founder, Sergey Brin that a driverless car was the future of transportation and thus the Google Car project was started.

In 2010, a prototype of the Google Car was introduced, which was simply a Toyota Prius with 1200 sensors and servo motors being controlled by a series of complex computers. 

The Google Car employs a laser Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) system that helps the car to sense and image its immediate environment and send those images to the central on-board computers that allows the car to safely navigate in traffic.

The cars also use a complete onboard routing and navigation Google Carsystem which uses real-time traffic data to give you the optimal course to get you to your destination in the shortest amount of time (otherwise known as Google Maps).

In 2011, Google was able to successfully lobby the State of Nevada to allow the operation of a driverless car to be driven within the state.  Three others states, California, Florida, and Michigan have since adopted similar laws along with pending legislation in a multitude of other states.

Google now has a fleet of 23 vehicles, including cars manufactured by Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Audi which have already been test driven 1.7M miles on public streets and highways.

Last month, Google reported that over the course of all those test miles, their vehicles had been involved in 11 accidents.  However, when one looks at the data reported, it showed that the Google cars involved in the accidents had actually been hit by other cars including 7 incidents where other drivers rear-ended the Google car while the Google car was stopped at an intersection.

Currently a Google car costs about $150,000 to manufacture with Google Carabout $70,000 of the cost in the Lidar sensing system.  Sergey Brin, however, believes that the cost of the car will eventually be reduced to around $40,000, which is still fairly high for most people.  It is expected that the first production cars will be available starting in 2020.

I began thinking about the cost, but then I started to calculate the savings I could create just by being productive during those 100 minutes a day.

Now, I’m certain that a self-driving car is not for everyone.  There are plenty of people who were very happy riding their very reliable horse instead of driving one of those new-fangled automobiles (yes... automobiles were less-than-reliable during those early days... along with no paved roads).

However, to be fair, mainstream car manufacturers have been slowly automating cars now for decades, including cruise control, safety braking, navigation systems, automated parallel parking controls, back-up cameras, and now automatic lane changing technology. 

A fully automated car was simply the next step in this evolution. 

Additionally, I’m okay with the thoughts of removing drunk, impaired, significantly elderly, and/or "text and drive" drivers from getting behind the wheel.  In the words of Second Amendment advocates... cars don’t kill people... irresponsible drivers do.

Understandably, there are many hurdles that still need to be overcome before a "chauffeured car" is sitting in everyone’s garage, but I suspect that day is only a few years away... not decades or even centuries.

I’m excited to be living during a time when the greatest advances in technology ever witnessed have occurred. 

Change can be challenging for a lot of people... things that we know and love are being discarded for new and different things... but that’s what makes life interesting and exciting for all of us...

Our endless thoughts are driving the limits technology...

...and technology will soon be driving us to work each morning.

Thank you for your continued support of OptiFuse where we continue to embrace the technologies that help improve the quality of our lives.

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