Roborgtaxis or Ultimate Driving Machines? Do you want to be moved around in soulless robotaxis operated by the Borg, or would rather take to the road in the Ultimate Driving Machine?
Which TV series did you binge-watch over lockdown? My wife and I shared the delights of World’s Most Scenic Railway Journeys. If we couldn’t travel, we figured we’d watch a series about travel. People love to travel. New places, new vistas, new cultures, new memories. Traveling is part of the human experience. It is exciting, stimulating and informative; we plan it and look forward to it.
How about moving? One might move home, or move a piano, or being at a transitional phase in life one might be “moving on.” Moving is practical and necessary but, like flossing your teeth, is uninspiring. When was the last time you asked anyone what brand of floss they use?
So, when I heard the tagline “You move the world. We move you” high tech was not my first thought. My first thought was laxatives.
This probably isn’t quite the response the communication folks at Motional (previously the Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture) were aiming for with their cutesy promo video but, hey, human behavior is complex and isn’t quite as predictable as those clever AI and deep learning hombres want us to believe.
Predictability is boring. Just look back on your experience of lockdown. Was it like Groundhog Day? Same four walls? Same computer screen? Did you yearn for something, anything, to be different? Humans need variability; it is why we like to travel. We may not always welcome change, but the human brain isn’t wired for boring, unstimulating, repetitive experiences. It feels like torture to us.
Which leaves me questioning the practical experience of using robotaxis. Fleets of identikit vehicles moving their human cargo around. Every robocar the same, every robo-driver the same, every robo-experience the same. You know up-front exactly what you will get but, like fast-food, the outcome is going to be uninspiring and instantly forgotten.
I have no doubt that autonomous vehicle (AV) developers such as Cruise, Motional and Waymo think they know what people want. But, like lockdowns, I wonder how quickly many people will tire of the boring, soulless, repetitive nature of the robotaxi experience.
The concept of robotaxis has always looked to me like a catastrophic misjudgment of human nature. Each time I see a picture of rows of precisely lined-up AVs, my thoughts turn to the Borg in Star Trek. Is the future Roborgtaxis, where resistance is futile?
Robotaxi developers may well have spent many billions of dollars working towards technology that is functional, practical and predictable and yet just like the Borg, a complete turn-off. But resistance isn’t futile. All is not lost. There is another…
Tech Wars: Return of the Automaker
If the script involves AV tech assimilating the world, defeating the traditional automakers and human drivers surrendering their licenses to the evil AI Empire, no one told the Rebel Alliance led by BMW; nor for that matter a large portion of the tech industry which is focused on humanizing the automotive experience.
With so much focus in recent years on the use of AI and deep learning to replace human drivers with self-driving vehicles, little attention has been paid to the technology ecosystem that has developed to make human drivers into safer drivers and to enhance the in-cabin user experience.
BMW’s iNEXT platform is at the forefront of this effort and I want to summarize three of the technologies that I have been reviewing which I believe feature in its forthcoming i4 coupe and i5 SUV.
At the end of September Cerence held its Technology Showcase to highlight its expertise in “Conversational AI” that humanizes the car. If you have ten minutes you can review the presentation in this slide deck https://www.cerence.com/static-files/bad8aafa-cdbb-474d-bfdf-bd66d43f02de and if you have 90 minutes, you can watch the webinar it in its entirety in the video below.
Humanizing the automotive experience means the use of advanced augmented reality head-up displays (AR-HUD). I believe Continental is the supplier of the AR-HUD for the iNEXT platform and we can learn more about its product developments in head-up displays here:
Human factors research, driver monitoring and eye tracking are key components for detecting driver state in human-driven vehicles and my research suggests Seeing Machines will be the provider for BMW. A summary of its technology development is shown below and the capability of its “State Monitoring Algorithms” remains a closely guarded secret.
As discussed recently in EE Times and New Scientist, vision-based driver monitoring technology may well be on the way towards detecting drivers that are intoxicated through drink and drugs. Human factors science and behavioral research will play a critical role in the development of intervention strategies to mitigate intoxication and I look forward to understanding more about these developments. This slide deck provides more details about Seeing Machines.
The combination of conversational AI, AR-HUD and driver monitoring will revolutionize the in-cabin user experience and I applaud BMW for what looks like a significant technological step forward. I doubt other major players in the tech industry are far behind and I believe Google is already working on eye tracking for a future version of Android Automotive OS.
The video below is the introduction to Motional. I invite you to watch it in full and to decide for yourself if the discussion of robotaxis generates more or less excitement in you than some of the other technologies described in this article.
Watching World’s Most Scenic Railway Journeys, I was amazed to learn that some of the rail-roads featured took more than a century to construct, many of the companies went bust (some more than once) and a lot of lives were lost in the building phase.
The projects turned out to be far harder, more complicated, took longer and needed significantly more funding than predicted. Costs were almost entirely front-loaded, revenues only followed completion of entire sections of construction and in some cases, profits never materialized. Is that a portent of the future of robotaxis?
Assuming AV technology can even be successfully developed and deployed, the big unknown remains do consumers want to be moved around in soulless robotaxis operated by the Borg, or do they want to take to the road in the Ultimate Driving Machine with an immersive in-cabin user experience?
The beauty of this story is we each get to decide for ourselves. I know I can hardly wait to see the first example of the iNEXT platform on the road next year. BMW looks to have judged human nature to perfection and might even have finally surpassed Tesla.
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