The Man in the White Self-Driving Car

There's certainly been a lot written about "the next big thing" - self-driving cars. The idea is a mash-up of several powerful drivers: increased auto safety, smart devices, convenience, Big Data, robotics, and let's not forget Google's relentless march into every aspect of life. But every blast of Schumpeter's Trumpet strikes some discordant notes. And this time they will be doozies.

Have you ever seen the great old 1951 B&W Alec Guinness movie "The Man in the White Suit"? It's about an earnest young researcher employed in the thriving textile industry that dominated the north of England since the industrial revolution who develops their version of the Great Disruptive Innovation. He invents a miracle fabric; nearly indestructible, that repels dirt or stains of all kinds. He weaves his fabric and makes a suit; white because no dye will adhere to it.

Is he lauded as a genius and benefactor to the race? Very briefly. Soon the textile union workers and the mill owners jointly realize that once a supply of indestructible clothes is produced they will be out of business. They try to bribe him and buy him out to no avail. (Genius types can be so impractical.) Finally we see all parties hunting him through the streets as an angry mob bent on preserving the status quo at any cost. No spoilers here: go see the movie. After all, the movie distribution business has already been disrupted; you can watch it on Amazon Instant Video, perhaps other sites.

See the parallel? Self driving vehicles may reduce auto-related injuries. But just as surely as they reduce the numbers of autos themselves and all the attendant industries. Fewer accidents is a direct attack on the $220 Billion auto insurance industry and its 277k employees. (You know, I really won't miss the commercials but I wonder if Flo and the Gecko will end destitute. Oh, the humanity.) And what about the auto industry itself? Will we ever again see 16.4 million new auto registrations per year in the US or will people treat cars more as an on-demand service? Like Uber, but with a massive fleet of robot cars that show up and take you where you want to go at the beck and call of your phone -- the way rich people with chauffeurs acted in old movies.

Will the giant auto makers allow private transportation to be commoditized without a fight? How about the $203B auto parts industry? Or the $62B car repair industry employing 600k people? The $85B auto aftermarket industry might salvage a little, perhaps kits to make your robot taxi more personalized? The fast food drive-thru industry may do ok... but remind me to invest in a company writing algorithms that make such-and-such a restaurant appear at the top of the robotic recommendations list.

The teamsters? Are these famously tough guys going to lay down to be replaced by bits of software? Maybe so. The current age of long-haul drivers is 55, and few want to take this job with its loneliness, long hours and relatively low pay of $38k/year on average. The US projects that we will be short by some 330k drivers as soon as 2020. Just in time for the robot fleets? Are trucks going to arrive at sterile, gleaming facilities to be off-loaded by robot forklifts feeding AGVs in automated warehouses? I admire the efficiency. But who's left to speak to?

Paging Prof. Schumpeter,... Any Bright Ideas?

Creative Destructionism has always been the balm we apply to change-pain. Sure, the buggy whip makers may have transitioned into the auto aftermarket making, what, those ice scraper things? But are we really going to preside over a massive re-education of the physical driving world to the brave new silica version?

Even if cargo truckers give way to self-drive we still have a quarter of a million taxi drivers and 480,000 school bus drivers and then there's the short haul carriers, the public buses, etc. Not to mention all those poor auto body mechanics. I hope not to be politically incorrect (not this time, at least) but I can't see them all learning Python and iOS Swift. Cars are a BIG deal in America. Really big. You just can't believe how mind-blowingly big they are. This level of disruption is going to need some extra creative creative destructionism.

Thinking caps on! Maybe bus drivers could become more like conductors? Serving cocktails or actually keeping schoolkids safe and well-behaved. (I don't believe it either.) Robot cars need to keep people occupied, so imagine the windshield becomes a big TV screen facing fat, padded recliners. Cars become moving entertainment hubs complete with mini-bars and satellite feeds of every movie or show ever made. Dare I say it? Since you're not driving, and don't care to see a movie, how else will you be entertained? No doubt a Tinder-like spinoff called "Let's pull over" or something where proximity logic will pair up willing commuters with time to, er, kill.

But all this is to the benefit of the Eloi driving around in gleaming, entertainment cocoons. Sipping automatically-mixed Cosmopolitans and watching a TED presentation or Gilligan's Island, who'd know?, while going somewhere trendy. The Morlocks will be left more and more behind. You'll see them in shabby groups talking about the good old days when timing ignition was something you fiddled with and there were pedals on the floor. What was the one of the left called again?

I'm not sure I'm ready. Truth is I like driving. Top down; wind in hair. I like computers. A lot. But not in that way - as the saying goes. So I'm rooting for the Gecko and the Auto Giants to torpedo this Google/Tucker. Run Mr. Guiness, we're coming for you.