I blame Singularity University -- “SU,” to the converted -- where I spent a week in March becoming fully indoctrinated into the cult of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. There I heard that Intel’s Gordon Moore was more correct than even he realized when he came up with his now-famous law about the performance pace of computing doubling every 18 months. Moore’s Law doesn’t just apply to computers. It applies to any information-enabled technology, like robotics, nanotech, artificial intelligence, and more -- all moving inexorably along an exponentially accelerating curve.
Hang out with the SU folks long enough, and you’ll start believing this progression just kind of… happens, regardless of circumstances. You’ll feel that technology carries its own momentum, that we are all being swept along by it, that nothing can stand in its way.
But of course, there’s nothing inevitable about the progress of technology. Even when it’s following a predictable, consistent doubling curve, someone has to be hustling it along.
Or, as Wait But Why’s Tim Urban puts it, we need to get past “the intuitive but incorrect notion that technology naturally moves forward on its own over time—it doesn’t… The way technology works is that by default, it stands still, and it moves forward only when something pushes it forward.”
If we want to predict where any given technology is going over the next five or 10 years, we have to understand who has the incentive to push it forward and how many resources they have to do so.
Which brings us to Uber.
Uber is pretty much eating the world right now. It has more money than everybody else, more lobbyists than everybody else, more naked ambition than everybody else. As Pando’s Sarah Lacy says, it’s time to get real: Uber IS the sharing economy.
So let’s have a crack at predicting where autonomous cars are going.
Of all the companies working on autonomous vehicles, none has as much incentive to get them deployed as Uber. If Audi develops a self-driving car and it takes off (as it were), the company has merely substituted one product for another. Even Tesla would largely maintain its business model. But once Uber gets access to self-driving cars, it has eliminated almost all of its labor costs.
How many resources does Uber have? Pretty much all of them. It has raised $5.5 billion, and it is worth somewhere between $40 and $50 billion. And the company has proven itself willing to throw those resources at anything standing in its way, whether that’s regulation, market barriers, or technological limitations.
Last year, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick publicly imagined a future in which his drivers are replaced with robots. He then proceeded to commence creating said future.
The headlines started back in May. “Carnegie Mellon Reels After Uber Lures Away Researchers,” said the Wall Street Journal. What started out as a friendly partnership had gone seriously south, with the car-sharing giant poaching 40 driverless-car researchers and scientists to populate its new tech center in Pittsburgh.
In July, Kalanick said he would buy 500,000 driverless cars from Tesla in 2020. And just a few days ago, the company announced a partnership with University of Arizona, working on mapping and safety. (If it’s learned anything from Carnegie Mellon, U of A may want to keep an eye on its staff.)
Even Bill Gates thinks Uber has the best shot at dominating the autonomous vehicle industry.
Exponential tech may not happen naturally. But as long Uber is around, flush with cash and hugely ambitious, we can expect autonomous vehicles to continue their doubling trend, ultimately becoming not only better than driverful vehicles, but also much less expensive.
Anybody want to buy my used car, cheap?