A few years ago I traveled to Tanzania with a few good friends. We went to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. As we drove through the African countryside, one thing stood out to me — many people had cell phones. Tanzania never had the necessary capital to invest in landlines, but now it has leapfrogged into a completely new way of facilitating communication, going far beyond the old telephone technology.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I went to Manila to spend some time with my company’s team in Makati. The traffic there is brutal. In the Philippines, very little civil planning takes place. To address the congestion problem, it would require massive amounts of investment, and frankly even then the problem would not be fixed. In a place like Manila, self-driving vehicles will not work, since there are no standardized roads and highways. If you’ve traveled much, you know that the Philippines is far from being an exception in that regard.
Self-driving is complicated and incredibly expensive. It requires moving safely in a two-dimensional fashion, with little room to maneuver and no room for error. It requires an extensive grid of proper and properly-maintained roads and highways with standardized streets, lines, signs, signals, lights and on and on. This two-dimensional traffic grid must provide protection for pedestrians and bicyclists.
If you think about it, self-flying could create a much easier solution.
Don’t believe it? Just consider the analogy of landlines vs. mobile phones. Our cell phones free us from the limiting wired technology we used for over one hundred years, which connected us to the earth — but tethered us to it, as well. In the same way wireless phones freed us from that wired tether, self-flying transportation could free us from the massive limitation of cars and highways. It would require no roads, signs or signals. You could travel in a three dimensional fashion, with massively more opportunities to avoid accidents. Adding another dimension frees up an enormous amount of space, and the traffic problem that plagues every urban area could go away immediately. Self-flying vehicles could travel in a straight line instead of following roads, which would also make them much more efficient, using less energy and faster getting from point A to point B.
But wouldn’t we all have to be trained pilots? No-we already have drones, and now we have the technology to develop people-carrying drones. With no need to learn how to fly, you would only need to tell the vehicle where to go. Imagine it: a multi-copter, passenger-carrying automatic drone equipped with a parachute could be the safest, most efficient way to travel. Yes, it sounds like science fiction — but it’s not.
So here’s my prediction: Apple is not building a self-driving car. Apple is building a self-flying, people carrying drone, and they’re not the only ones. At CES this year, the Ehang 184 debuted–an autonomous, all-electric quadcopter. Larry Page, the founder of Google, has his hand in two autonomous flying car startups, called Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk, both headquartered in Silicon Valley. Several other companies — Terrafugia, E-Volo and AeroMobil among them — have working prototypes.
That makes self-driving cars a bridge technology, which we will leapfrog very rapidly, before we all take to the skies.