BY CHRISTOPH MEYER
ME 302C - The Future of the Automobile - Mobility Entrepreneurship is a Stanford course taught by Reilly Brennan and Stephen Zoepf in Spring 2017. This course will feature a series of guest speakers across the spectrum of the mobility industry, with Pearl, Turo, and Lyft featured among others.
In order to provide an inside view to mobility enthusiasts not enrolled in the course, I will be publishing a weekly post on the CARS blog. These posts will feature a high level summary of a brief discussion with each of the guest speakers. While the content shared in the classroom will be kept confidential and off-the-record, I will interview them for 15-20 minutes afterwards. I may probe them on topics that were covered in class but the interviewee will have the discretion as to how they answer. The goal will be to learn more about their companies as well as delve into the speakers’ views on general trends in the industry and predictions of where things are headed.
Keep your eyes out for these weekly updates - full speed ahead!
As a sophomore at Stanford, Joshua Browder is taking on the legal industry with his legal technology/chatbot company DoNotPay. Both in class and during our conversation, he touched upon a very broad set of ideas that will greatly impact our future. One of my takeaways during our conversation was how interconnected all future technologies stand to be. The blockchain, AVs, machine learning, etc. will all overlap in many different ways — in transportation and beyond. As a result, due to already existing market dynamics, the technology ecosystem stands to become overly concentrated. This could also happen in transportation due to network effects, but the innumerable partnerships taking place recently seem to point to a slightly different future of the industry. Finally, these technological changes will necessitate evolution of governments. Technologies and their implications on the socioeconomic structure of society will require action and evolution from governments. They will be affected directly through changes in their sources of revenues, and indirectly, in the expectations of people on how they legislate and regulate.
What areas in transportation could still benefit most from technology?
“I believe personal vehicles have so much data about us and it’s still not being used. Like our phones in the past, our vehicles has so much untapped information. For example, if someone is driving to the hospital and they are speeding, we actually know the reason why they are speeding. Realistically, a car could already automatically appeal a speeding ticket if it was given due to the emergency of the situation. Our vehicles should be able to integrate into our lives as easily as the iPhone and help in similar and very useful ways.”
What are the biggest legal issues we will face with autonomous vehicles?
“Everyone talks about the scenario of whether a car should save the passenger or run over someone crossing the street. I think it’s not just that problem that we are going to face. We will have much broader questions, like who will own parking spaces, how the curb will be regulated, what happens if an AV runs into another vehicle or a person. These are big legal questions that will need to be answered.
I think many of these decisions will be decided via bitcoin and the blockchain, even though people don’t really understand the impact of those technologies yet. In the future, there will need to be millions of transactions taking place every second — a continuous set of bidding and billing transactions. On toll-roads, prices will likely change every day to regulate demand. The only technology that can support this volume and complexity is the blockchain. Especially, when it comes to parking, I think this will be the case. Cars will be able to pay for themselves. I don’t think this can work via credit cards — there are already so many issues with credit cards such as fraud and processing times. The block chain is a public ledger and will prevent many of these problems.”
How will the legal industry change when this industry evolves?
“I would not be surprised if the legal industry becomes much more predictive. I can see a world in which people will be able to predict their problem before it even happens. With so much information and data, we will be able to figure out whether you are at risk for a speeding ticket before you get into the car. Algorithms could aggregate many sources of information — the traffic routes, your calendar, historical driving patterns, etc — and know your likelihood of speeding. Then, if it knows there’s a police car on your route, it could warn you. I think this will happen within the next 5 years, even before autonomous vehicles become widespread.”
How do you think governments will adapt to changing sources of revenue, due to the potential elimination of parking and speeding tickets?
“The way our technology is evolving will have impacts in two main ways. First, it will be great because technology, such as the blockchain, will limit the ability of governments to unfairly make money off of people because of transparency. Second, this transparency will apply more broadly and limit people’s ability to hide money in offshore accounts or avoid paying taxes. This will affect wealthier people while offsetting the government’s loss of revenue from fines and tickets.
I also think government more broadly stands to become more efficient. They will be able to save money internally, using technology that will cut down costs and people needs. Many of the tasks in government could already be automated to save taxpayer money. There’s no reason why machine learning can’t help save money for the government too.”
How do we cope with job loss due to automation in the future?
“The tipping point will come with driverless cars. Transportation directly or indirectly employs pretty much everyone in the economy. It goes far beyond truck drivers and taxi drivers, who already represent a large number. The economy is interconnected by the transportation industry and thus self-driving cars could create massive job displacement. We will need to enact basic income or more extensive social security to deal with the repercussions. We cannot have entrepreneurs make all the returns — some of their enormous earnings will need to be taxed and reallocated.”
You’re trying to democratize legal advice and counsel for people, how do we better democratize transportation?
“I am confident that transportation is going to be democratized. Currently, the main cost of a taxi is the driver — once we eliminate this, the cost will go way down. I actually think the democratization of transportation will be a big problem. It stands to become so cheap that people will begin to use it much more. They may drive around for no real reason or even stay in a self-driving car overnight instead of in a hotel. This overuse could create gridlock traffic and many other side-effects. Transportation could become too democratized.
To solve this, there’s going to have to be some disincentive, which, again, could be enforced via the blockchain. However, we may also have technological ways to help solve the problem. One option is going underground, as Elon Music has suggested, but I think that’s a long way away.”
What are the biggest challenges in taking on big established industries?
“I’m worried that when you’re fighting big industries, they will find regulatory ways to dismiss startups like mine. This was the case with taxi drivers, who have been able to fight off Uber and Lyft. However, as a startup, the good thing is that you have nothing to lose. The industries you’re trying to disrupt have everything to lose but we don’t. In my experience, I’m excited and surprised to see how far I’ve gotten. I think entrepreneurs shouldn’t be intimidated — they are able to do a lot more than they think.”
What are you most worried about this industry?
“I just worry that the power could become centered into a small group of companies. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon already control an incredible amount of our lives. But if it gets even more concentrated, this could be too much. We could end up in a situation like in Brave New World, where democracy falls apart. Facebook is already more powerful than any elected official — they have so much influence on everyone’s daily life. Our lives stand to become controlled by monolithic corporations.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception in the transportation industry right now?
“I think the biggest misconception is that transportation is all about hardware. I actually think it’s 90% software. In reality most of the problems are software related and that’s where most of the benefit stands to take place. For example, on average each Facebook user spends 30 minutes on the site every day. When autonomous vehicles go to market, people will likely spend an average of two hours in their car every day. That’s a long time to have a captive audience. Imagine what that world could look like. Everyone is focused on hardware but there are such implications for software and I believe this is where the massive market opportunity will take place.”