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April 12, 2016

Fueling A Transportation Revolution

Posted by Vikram Meghal (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:02 AM

Testing the Tesla Autopilot on a 2,995-mile road trip [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPTb9IgREM0]

"It'll never happen. Not in a thousand years."

That was the general response in the United States when Henry Ford began marketing his Model T to the masses. The reason there were naysayers: To accommodate a horseless carriage, the country would have to build a massive network of paved roadways and have refueling stations in almost every town. Think about it: Every town in America with a place where a driver could refill the tank of his automobile with gasoline?

I would even digress to the smear campaign staged against gasoline processors by those companies that made the main fuel of the day - kerosene. Gasoline stood to drive kerosene producers out of business.

But it all happened. Not in a thousand years but in less than five. When the market places a great demand for a product or service, supply inevitably follows.

Which is what is happening today, more than one century after the appearance of the internal combustion engine and the horseless carriage radically changed the way we travel. In the next couple of months, Tesla Motors will have 105 charging stations in the New York City borough of Manhattan. Currently there are 40 gas stations in Manhattan. That means that there will be more than double the amount of places to charge your electric car than to refill at the gas pump.

Now I know what you're thinking: The Tesla is a super-luxury car that is the toy of the super-rich. True, but so were cars in 1900. Increasingly the market for electric automobiles will expand to accommodate middle-class consumers. Even more charging stations will appear. And then one wonders what the traditional automakers will do. Will they dig in their heels and assume the engine of old will continue to be in in demand? Or will they, too, offer their own electric models? (Some already do. General Motors unveiled its marvelous EV-1 coupe around 1990.)

"A year ago, the garages were saying, 'Whoa, what's this thing?'" a Tesla-owner recently said to the press. "But now they know what to do - you can just leave it and say 'plug it in' and come back in an hour." I believe people are yet to grasp the importance of this. Nor have they grasped another development courtesy of Tesla - its recent introduction of its Version 7.0 operating system, also named Autopilot.

Autopilot can steer within lanes, change lanes, keep an appropriate speed, and park itself. If you hunt around on YouTube, you can see Telsa drivers sitting in the driver's seat during rush hour as they read the morning newspaper (on their tablets, of course) and drink their coffee. Once again we are experiencing an enormous transformation as to how the human race will move itself around the planet, much like we did a century ago. But this shift cuts much deeper. When we hear the term Autopilot, one thing immediately comes to mind: Artificial Intelligence(AI). As well it should. AI and automation are opening up a world of possibilities for us, well beyond just cars.

True, some technology experts feel trepidation when it comes to machines that teach themselves. One renowned scholar recently pointed out that we are presently thinking about AI that is equivalent to a person with a 150 I.Q. What happens when that machine teaches itself to think like a person with a 1,000 I.Q.? Will that machine start to wonder why the earth needs humans? Will the car you're driving wonder why it's having to carry you from place to place? The logic is that it will take over your job and simply communicate with other supercomputers.

Tesla says that by this September it will have a charging station every three blocks in New York City. Do you think electric automobile makers predict a rapid rise in demand for their products? You bet. So do enterprises currently developing AI. Is it any wonder that the world's traditional automakers are forming alliances with technology firms from Silicon Valley to Bangalore? Some tech companies, like Google, are going one step further and taking the car companies out of the equation, assuming they will develop and build the personal transportation device of tomorrow. If human history gives us any clues, they might just be right.

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