Driven: Writing a Book About Self-Driving Cars

The self-driving car as imagined in the 1950's

The self-driving car as imagined in the 1950's

Recently, I have become fascinated with the topic of self-driving cars.  It started when my friend Nick Paredes, who is a designer, asked me to edit an article he wanted to write for FastCompany, the popular technology and design magazine.  The article was on the topic of self-driving cars.  I was more than happy to help, not only because, as Mark Twain said, there is nothing more powerful than the urge to correct someone else’s writing, but because Nick recently helped me with the design for the cover of my novel “The Wind in the Embers”.   Now I should say that while Nick is a talented designer he is not the most coherent of writers, and after trying to pull apart and reassemble his prose, I decided the best approach would be to rewrite in my own words what he was trying to say; and what he was trying to say was fascinating.

The gist of it was that the general public is not prepared for the revolution that will be the self-driving car.  Most people think of the self-driving car as essentially a car, albeit one that will be able to operate without a driver when called upon to do so.  This falls far short of the mark.  

The self-driving car will be a paradigm shattering innovation that will impact society on a level not seen since the invention of electric light, not only because it will be a cool new type of automobile, but because it will be the first fully autonomous robot capable of learning from experience and acting independently of its operator.  If you have not thought of it that way, you have been thinking about it all wrong.

The technology necessary to develop the self-driving car owes far more to the fields of robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) than it does to the field of mechanics, which is at the core of the current automobile.  The difference between them is the difference between a jet airplane and a bicycle.  But it gets even crazier than that when you consider the direction the research is heading.

Google and Tesla are at the forefront of development in this field, and they have moved decisively away from the incremental approach Detroit favors toward the introduction of a fully autonomous vehicle within a decade.  What does that mean?  It means the cars they will introduce will drive themselves without human input—no steering wheel, no pedals, and, most importantly, no override switch to allow the human to take over when he wants.  All that the human will be able to do is tell the car where to go, and the car will go there.  And here’s the kicker: the human does not even have to be in the car.

If you need to pick up a prescription from the drug store, let’s say, you simply tell the car to go get it, the car drives to the drive-thru window, picks it up and brings it home.  That, as Nick points out, is more than a car, that’s a personal servant, a robot valet; that’s a dramatic shift in how we think about robots and computers, and, oh, by the way, it’s also a car.

Anyway, when I got to thinking about it, I realized that part of Nick’s problem with coherence was that he was trying to say too much at once, not unlike a person who is excited and has a lot to say and stumbles and stammers and backtracks.  The implications of this self-driving car thing were way too much for a single article.  He needed to think about writing a book.

One of Nick’s many strengths is his networking ability, his ability to make contacts, follow up, and build networks of professionals he can call on.  Notably, this one of my biggest deficiencies.  He also has the ability to be comfortable in an interview setting.  I am horrible at that.  On the other hand, Nick is not a natural writer.  As a designer, he is a visual person.  If he is going to write a book, he is going to need some help.  So I proposed we collaborate.  He happily accepted.

Presently, we are in the preliminary stages, trying to read the relevant books and articles on the topic to get an understanding of what’s already been done so we can shape our thesis.  We’ve already begun to massage some ideas.  Once we are done with that we will outline a broad structure for the book and line up interviews.  As the interviews are conducted we will gain more insights and the book will begin to grow organically within the framework, which, in all likelihood, will have to be revised.

So that’s the project I’m working on concurrently with the sequel to “The Wind in the Embers”.  For the next six months or so I expect to be bouncing back and forth the between the past (5th century Rome) and the future (the year 2050 when it is projected that more than half the cars on the road will be autonomous).  I’m excited.  I feel driven.  I’d better be.  It's going to be a lot of work.  Plus, I also have a business to run.  I don't know how I'm going to get it all in, but it's the kind of thing I love to do.  So hopefully that will carry me through—that and superior time management. 

More later,