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This is Ian Ozsvald's blog, I'm an entrepreneurial geek, a Data Science/ML/NLP/AI consultant, founder of the Annotate.io social media mining API, author of O'Reilly's High Performance Python book, co-organiser of PyDataLondon, co-founder of the SocialTies App, author of the A.I.Cookbook, author of The Screencasting Handbook, a Pythonista, co-founder of ShowMeDo and FivePoundApps and also a Londoner. Here's a little more about me.

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15 January 2013 - 21:35Do self-driving cars make the courier redundant?

I’ll start with a quote via “Why workers are losing the war against the machines” taken from A Farewell to Alms by economist Gregory Clark:

“There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. … There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed. “

Now I’m back in London I’m watching the prevalence of couriers and delivery people bringing a constant stream of packages through the busy streets. I’m betting this will be automated in the near future. Couple self-driving cars and a physical-packet-delivery-platform that looks a bit like the Internet protocol and then you’ve got (I think) a bit of a game changer.

Update – future posts discuss other outcomes for self-driving cars and a hackday looked at making parking-bay utilisation more efficient in London.

Self-driving cars have the potential to be legal in cities (they’re legal in a few US states at present, accepting longer legal battles to come). They’ll drive safely and predictably, they’re unlikely to react erratically (e.g. no pulling out in busy streets for a foolish maneuver and hitting a cyclist), they don’t need a lunch break and they could pick-up and drop-off from depots a long way from traditional storage facilities (as nobody has to commute to the facility).

Consider one of these vehicles arriving outside your office and phoning you to give you a secret ID number. You come out to the street, key in the number, a panel pops open and there’s your package. Internally the packages are retrieved in a similar way to automated warehouses. Since the system is always calling home to report its status it could notify all upcoming delivery recipients of its expected ETA. You could probably buy an upgrade to reserve your delivery slot (giving delivery companies a new revenue stream?).

If they’re controlled via a derivative of the Internet Protocol then we have a decentralised physical-packet-routing system. If the cars can ‘mate’, perhaps by backing on to each other, they can trade packages so the packages travel further without human intervention. Maybe you end up with an open market for atoms-distribution, assuming compatible protocols exist amongst the courier companies.

I’ve followed John Robb’s recent discussion of DroneNet (more) – it is the same idea (props – I’m tagging on his/others’ thinking) applied to low cost drones. I think drones will follow later as they’re constrained by weight and flight restrictions and so they are far less useful in the city at present.

At the end of the day I think that humans will be pushed out of the physical package delivery game (be it via drones or via delivery cars). Trying to understand the speed at which humans will be removed from traditional working disciplines in specialist area continues to baffle me.

Update – economist Philippe Bracke notes that government legislation might slow the adoption of self-driving vehicles, giving drivers time to cross-train into other areas of work. He also notes that the adoption of driverless cars, perhaps operating at night (and maybe filled by petrol stations that offer discounted fuel at night as an attractor?), would reduce daytime congestion. This in turn might make it more likely that human-driver cars are more abundant by day, increasing urbanisation and raising house prices. Personally I’m not sure how to think about the second-order effects of changes like these.


Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight and Mor Consulting, founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

4 Comments | Tags: ArtificialIntelligence, Life