Coming Soon: A Totally Mechanized City

I’m totally fascinated by this imaginary article from the future on TechCrunch about Uber.

It’s moments like these when you realize what cities will become in the future. Seriously.

Driverless cars– no drivers will ever be able to compete with the lowering of prices that will occur when you make robots drive cars. The margins skyrocket, the staff goes down– for a business, almost nothing but good things occur. Uber just hit a $3.5B valuation and they don’t even actually have driverless cars yet. Imagine when they do.

But that’s just one aspect of what cities will look like. You can forget for a moment whether you think my company Breather will win or not, but someone will win the “smart lock” war and will build a network from it. That’s a billion dollar company for sure. You have to be braindead not to see that.

Ok, so far we have automated software-as-a-service type lock and car networks. What else could be automated? Cross-country shipping / truck driving? What other basic, “all-American” industry will be totally overturned by the internet of things? Auto repair? Farming?

More precisely, which one won’t? You will be left with fully automated processes, often with just a human watching, to make sure everything is ok. This is actually what Uber’s city HQs look like, by the way. They are central brains, often with ex-traders in them, buying and selling cars as needed.

Because once you turn it into software, the industry and its components can be bought and sold, almost like stocks.

So let’s look at the city of the future. Once you realize that driverless cars are possible, happening, and will become a service, you realize that so much more is possible than was ever imagined. The city becomes a pulsing machine that just happens to have people in it. And what’s ironic bout this is that those people are actually inventing more machines.

Think about that.

The city is a machine, with people in it, which are mostly working on building other machines (software and hardware) to help us build better machines.

Is this starting to seem weird yet?

Technology creeping into cities is inevitable, and it will happen at a pre-determined rate, largely based on hardware advances as they occur.

People driving cars will become like books– they will be a luxury for the rich.

Conversation from 10 years in the future?

Rich guy A: “I prefer paper– it just feels better.”

Rich guy B: “I use a driver– it just feels better.”

Tell me this isn’t going to happen. Tell me that, when your employer can send an autocar to drive you to work, it won’t. This basically means everyone will be taking “public transportation,” except it’ll be private public transportation that comes to you. You’ll be able to use it to read or work.

And what happens after that? Well, who knows. But I have a few more bets I’m willing to take.

If you’re curious about the future of transportation in cities, you should also look at the app, Transit. It’s basically perfect if you don’t drive. Check it.






14 responses to “Coming Soon: A Totally Mechanized City”

  1. Susan Cooper Avatar

    It is so funny how people think the future will look like. I remember old shows that depicted how our society would be today. Flying cars, automated houses, and such.

  2. Chuck Avatar

    I wonder if the model is more zipcar than Uber, in that a company owns a pool of cars rather than individuals.

    They’d keep a stock of cars in your neighborhood that can drive to you within a 5 minute window(or on a schedule). Use it for however long you need, then send it back. The cars then drive themselves to central depots for servicing/cleaning at night.

    Biggest issue with zipcar today is that you have to go to the car and they require high population density to make the model work.

    Probably makes for a pretty profound change in the number and type of cars bought.

  3. Jake McCrary Avatar

    You should read Brad Templeton’s thoughts on autonomous cars (robocars if you use his language). A wealth of thoughts and predictions of how disruptive robocars could be.

    I used to work on very early stage autonomous vehicles and didn’t really realize how exciting this technology would be until I read his thoughts.

  4. Julia Avatar

    So many thoughts provoked on this one! Rich “guy” (girl?) status symbol of owning fancy cars – does that go away? Skilled worker training changes. Does this result in more people having more time to just “Be FA”? Or will the pressure be on to become even more productive, create more machines, automate MORE? Perhaps this is a way to promote more creativity and innovation or will it further stagnate the rich and lazy?

    Love the Breather idea, btw, Julien. Brilliant and I will definitely use it when it’s available!

  5. Connie Kortz, Connie Kortz Avatar

    I do not ever think you will be able to replace human hands for a massage. NEVER! No machine or device rubbing my sore neck feels even remotely close to the real thing. Site neck compliments of working on machines.

  6. Connie Kortz, Connie Kortz Avatar

    I do not ever think you will be able to replace human hands for a massage. NEVER! No machine or device rubbing my sore neck feels even remotely close to the real thing. Sore neck compliments of working on machines.

  7. Ross Avatar

    So, we may or may not be dead by the time this is a full blown reality, but it makes me wonder: As someone who gave up their car years ago and bikes everywhere, would robot drivers be safer than human ones? I’d definitely feel safer biking home after last call, but will the latest software patch be as safe as they tested it to be for the crazy guy who bikes everywhere when a robot could just drive you there instead?

  8. tunie Avatar

    Good luck on your Breather bid, truly. But we need to respect people’s love of creating things other than machines, especially people who enjoy simple tasks like farming and mechanics. My CSA farmer would rather die than give up his perfect life, especially to a machine.

    There is so much missing from robotic life that people who are built out of factory farmed food and live in environments built with the energy of machines instead of humans will not only miss out on but cease to believe exists. Except for those of us fortunate enough to be wealthy. We will always have access to the beautiful energy of food grown and prepared with love and the feeling you get from handmade items. We need to begin deeply considering exactly what the best use of technology really is. It should always serve our best, healthiest interests first. We need to begin refining the concept of capitolism at any cost to a more nurturing format. Or, seriously, we will regret it.

  9. Chris Reimer Avatar

    Social media that posts itself! No, wait …

  10. Matt Palka Avatar
    Matt Palka

    This is sounding weird, but very interesting. I hope that when the time comes to turn off automatic pilot and take control of situations, we can handle things smoothly. This made me also think about what we will find on the ground in the future. Instead of coins, will we find credit cards and microchips scattered everywhere on the ground?

  11. neil21 Avatar

    As a Jake said, do see Templeton for much more on this.

    The breathlessness of this blog’s prose is a bit naive and excessive. These ideas are well-debated and debunked/addressed elsewhere.

    For example, transit vs private vehicles (however smart and small) is a geometry problem. They have to be parked overnight, they have to travel empty to their next fare. Transit running good straight routes with lots of destinations on them will always be superior, as will cities with street & zoning geometries that allow such routes. See Jarrett Walker at Human Transit blog (and read his book) for more.

    The job market upheaval is simply a subset of the robots takinurjerbs meme, most intelligently discussed (in terms of the impact on capital/profit and labour/demand) by Izabella Kaminska in the FT, IMO. See also Venkat Rao at re ‘You are not an artisan’ and tending the ‘child’ robots.

    The path dependency includes robotaxis sharing the streets with non-robots for a long time, so all that traffic improvement stuff won’t be our lifetimes. Also important for path dependency are legal challenges, particularly taxi oligopolies that have already put up a fight against Uber.

    The reurbanisation trend is about more than the price of oil or poverty of millenials. It’s about the realisation that the suburban experiment is a health, wealth and happiness disaster. That walking 20 minutes to work, that corner stores and other viable local retail, are actually pleasant. That a ‘sense of enclosure’ is a real human psychological thing. The robotaxis don’t suddenly nullify all that…

    In fact, what I think doesn’t get talked about enough, amid all the breathlessness, is how the robotaxis will help with retrofitting the marginal suburbs. Extreme phoenix-like exurbia is obviously screwed, but there are sort of unwalkable places that resist losing parking etc. that will be more open to such refits once families have the e-robotaxi option.

    Anyway. Always nice to have more smart people join the discussion, but I hope you go on to develop your ideas and forecasts a lot more deeply.

    1. Julien Avatar

      Great comment. Not a lot to add (it’d be a long response) but I’ll look at your references. Thanks.

      I’m particularly interested in creating more circulation in those suburbs you are talking about and how that happens.

  12. neil21 Avatar

    Also worth noting that the urbanist revival is – along with everything else – about making driving fun and great. See Chuck Marohn’s street-road distinction: driving the open road is fun, and even cruising slowly round true streets can be sexy. But stop-starting along a wide stroad with signals and intersections most definitely isn’t.

  13. khach san da lat Avatar

    The path dependency includes robotaxis sharing the streets with non-robots for a long time, so all that traffic improvement stuff won’t be our lifetimes. Also important for path dependency are legal challenges, particularly taxi oligopolies that have already put up a fight against Uber.

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