Sameer Saproo, CEO at Braiq
6 August 2017
Revolutions in transportation
#doMoreFaster is the motto of Techstars, an elite accelerator program that I had the good fortune to attend last year. I feel that in 3 words they have encapsulated one of the most powerful psychological drives at the root of human progress. In this post, I will reflect on this dictum within the context of revolutions in transportation technology that have helped humanity ‘do more faster.’ Each of these revolutions swapped out a single component of the previous transportation system but enabled an order of magnitude increase in our transportation capability.
The first revolution in transportation was the development of wheel; it helped early humans carry goods more efficiently, thereby increasing the load and the range of transportation. Next revolution replaced the engine of transportation, from humans to domesticated animals such as cattle, horse, etc. This revolution again increased the load and the range of transportation as these animals had more muscle mass and energy reserves than humans. In some cultures, the order of these two developments was reversed. Nonetheless, people used this basic transportation system (of animals and wheels) to #doMoreFaster for many millennia. The next revolution in transportation replaced animal power with mechanical power, initially through the steam engine and eventually through the internal combustion engine. A vestige of that change is the tradition of using horsepower for rating mechanical engines that has persisted even to this day. The adoption of the mechanical engine not only saved our metropolises from omnipresent mounds of horse-poo but raised the society’s collective #doMoreFaster capability to another level and helped create the boom in human population, technology, and economy witnessed in the past 150 years. Only with mechanical engines could we arrive at the absurdity of having a single person being transported by 800 horses*. We positively shame the monarchs of yore.
The next revolution in transportation again swaps out a single component; it will replace the human controller of the transportation system (drivers of chariots, wagons, or cars) with a machine controller aka AI. Since the benefits of driverless cars have been belabored elsewhere on the internet, I will only say that we will be taking the #doMoreFaster ethos to the next level with this coming revolution. Even though some herald the development of electric cars as a revolution, I am hesitant to conform to that view. Electricity instead of fossil fuel (or synthetic fuels) is certainly an improvement in how our transportation activities impact the biosphere but certainly doesn’t qualify as a quantum jump in our capabilities. Does it help us #doMoreFaster?
So far, I have only talked about how successive revolutions in the transportation of physical objects helped humanity #doMoreFaster. There is another set of revolutions that happened in parallel throughout human history. These revolutions also impacted transportation – the transportation of information. First through the development of written symbols and language, then through the Gutenberg press, the telegraph, the radio, and finally the internet.
We are now at an unprecedented stage in the evolution of our civilization where these two transportations systems – one for goods and other for information – will intersect powerfully just as the driverless revolution is unfolding. The groundwork has been laid. Firstly, the real-time access to the internet through mobile devices has unleashed the on-demand ride-sharing economy of Uber and Lyft among others. Whatever we think of this disruption or of the people who caused it, it is a disruption nevertheless and whose #doMoreFaster merits can only be denied by the most extreme of Luddites. Add the connected driverless car to this equation, and not only you now have drastically reduced transportation cost and road fatalities but the plethora of 2nd and 3rd order consequences that are yet to be imagined. Consider a fleet of autonomous vehicles that are being dispatched and routed optimally in a local population center by a central ‘AI controller,’ where individual vehicles can run 24x7 for weeks or months on end because the vehicles are electric and can continuously replenish through inductive charging roads. That futuristic stuff than can rival the imagination of Arthur Clark or Isaac Asimov. Because connected autonomous vehicles have sensors and can stream data, the central AI controllers will have thousands or even millions of eyes and ears roaming the globe. Furthermore, each vehicle is also receiving data about the world in real time and acting somewhat independently. There is something about the idea of an autonomous vehicle that can change its trajectory in 4D space based on real-time information about the 4D space, which in turn impacts the same 4D space, that is mind-bending and intellectually exhilarating.
The world of physical transportation and information transportation have intersected before, with similarly powerful results. Most scholars agree that it was the vast and robust system of the telegraph that helped a small imperial British military to conquer and control large swaths of the globe through swift movement of troops and arms to troubled hotspots where situations such as war, rebellion, and civil unrest were unfolding. I would hazard a guess that somewhat similar power – albeit purely economic – could be wielded by entities such as Uber and Amazon who could dynamically deploy their transportation assets across vast distances based on an evolving demand-supply equation. Could this economic power be translated into a political one? For example, could you quell a civil uprising by just selectively denying transportation assets to agitators that are trying to reach a rallying point, say the city square?
My choice of mentioning Uber and Amazon in the same breath above was deliberate. Although they seem to occupy different regions of the economic landscape, one deals mostly with inanimate goods while the other mostly with people, they both have similar fundamental muscle – they are the masters of logistics, of transportation. Moreover, the two are bound to collide. Uber’s acquisition of Otto – an autonomous trucking company – is no coincidence. I would even bet that their foray into aerial transportation – of people and good – is just a few years away. Amazon on the other end has a robust system for transportation of goods – using trucks, airplanes, and are even experimenting with drones – but not transportation of people. Do you think it is just a matter of time before they compete with Uber, especially after self-driving vehicles arrive on the scene?
Questions are the foundations of great insights, and great insights are the foundations of revolutions. We created revolutions in transportation by swapped logs with wheels, humans with animals, animals with motors, and human drivers with AI drivers. What would be the next revolution in transportation?
* Dodge Challenger SRT Demon is rated at 840 hp and can be had for under $100k