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Replying To John Robb on Drones, Self-Driving Cars

John’s post:

I spent some time on the phone with a reporter from Inc. Magazine last week.  We were discussing the future of entepreneurship and where new opportunity could be found.

He asked me about drones and if there were opportunities for entrepreneurs there.

I told him that there were only two places where drones were going to gain traction:

  • Security.   From military operations to intelligence gathering to police surveillance.
  • DiY.   People building their own drones and finding interesting ways to use them.

That’s it.


All of the other uses of drones are closed off due to legal restrictions:

  • Drones for passenger transport.  It’s pretty clear that drones could be used to transport passengers safely and at much less cost than a manned aircraft.  It won’t happen.  Too many legal implications and push back from unions.
  • Drones for private info gathering.  Currently prevented.  There’s going to be legal wrangling over this for decades, which will prevent an industry from forming (other than “security” related).
  • Drones for short haul delivery/transport.  Too difficult to overcome the legal ramifications of operating drones on a mass scale near to homes/buildings.  It will definitely be used in the military.

Much of same logic is going to be applied to other forms of autonomous robotics.  For example: robots can drive a car better than a human being.  Google proved that already with their mapping car.  Will it be common to see “automated” cars in the next decade.  Probably not.  The first person killed by one will kill the industry through lawfare. Link

My response:

I doubt it John. I think you have over-weighted the power of lawsuits versus innovation.

Usually when there are legal blockages to technology, it holds the technology back for a short time until it finds a way around it. See the transition from embryonic stem cells to skin stem cells.

For cars in particular, people want safety in their cars much more than energy efficiency. That’s part of the reason SUV’s have outsold the economy car designs, most of the models are much more secure, barring the extremely large ones that are vulnerable to tipping over.

Recently smaller SUVs that combine the two attributes have become the most popular design. The demand for safety in automobiles has always been extreme, and in the case of the Google car Sebastian Thrun has been extremely careful in making sure the cars don’t have any accidents even in testing.

People put more trust into tech companies like Google than they do the legal system or congress, by a wide margin:

Nevada has already legalized self driving cars, California is following.

So you assume that:
1. People’s desire for safety in consumer choices will be outweighed by their desire for control
2. There is no judo move to counter regulations, as there has been for many past technologies
3. That current friendly regulations are a smoke-screen for a coming crackdown
4. That people won’t trust the Google brand in particular in the case of the car
5. That a small number of lawsuits can destabilize a potentially multi-billion dollar industry, in spite of there being a perfect safety record thus far

2 responses to “Replying To John Robb on Drones, Self-Driving Cars

  1. Jehu October 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    The ADA will be the battering ram to break down legal/lawsuit objections to self-driving cars.
    That will probably be the only positive thing accomplished by that damnable piece of legislation.

  2. Drama October 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    I don’t know that it will be killed by lawfare. Much like how cars are currently, when something happens they create a complicated solution for simple problems, like the new backup camera laws. Same could be said for much of the crash protection and CAFE standards as well.

    Difference is that the auto industry has been around long enough to be that deeply ingrained into society that would couldn’t function without them, whereas we don’t need self-piloting vehicles. However it’s unlikely for google to just give up on something. Some city somewhere try it out and then it’ll grow.

    Biggest problem is that it’ll kill thousands of jobs. The technology of jobs can change in a matter of years, but people’s ability to retrain isn’t so easy. How many truck drivers will go back to school to learn computers?

    Personally I wish everything would just go to a monorail/rollercoaster track style system and get them up in the air and leave the ground clear for nothing but motorcycles and sportscars to play on.

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