What The Wright Brothers Teach Us About Autonomous Cars

The beginning of the era of driver-less vehicles, which started in Octber 2019, marks a new period. Not many have understood, how significant this year will become, but in the history books it will become the year as the beginning of the post-driver-less era.

Contemporaries tend to either miss those moments or, if they were witnessing it, downplay them as irrelevant. The video, which was posted on October 26th, and has since been exciting enthusiasts, doesn’t seem all too spectacular. We see a Waymo One minivan driving through a quiet neighborhood in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix in Arizona. In the off we hear the voice of the person recording the video, following the Waymo One. The chaser makes some illegal maneuvers to show us one thing: the Waymo One has nobody in the car. Neither a driver, nor a passenger. But the Waymo vehicles continues without flinching and drives smoothly and safely through the neighborhood.

As soon as the video appeared, skeptics chipped in and criticized it. “Who says that there isn’t anyone remotely controlling the car?” or “That’s very simple driving there, without any traffic.” or “The car is certainly following a fixed route. That’s very easy.” or “As soon as is starts snowing or raining, the car will be unable to continue.”

Similar arguments are thrown at other technologies, as witnessed with electric cars. For years Tesla’s progress and successes have encountered critical arguments. But we can show historical analogies, where such breakthroughs are leading us.

An example are Orville and Wilbur Wright, who did the first motorized flight in the remote place known as Kitty Hawk. Nobody believed them, and some contemporaries, such as the president of the French Aeronautic club, Ernest Archdeacon, found very unkind words. He called them bluffers. But for us it’s less interesting that the Wrights did the first flight in 1905, but more what happened next. Between 1906 and 1907 they were not flying at all, being busy with patenting their plane and the controls. Latter turned out to be a crucial component. The controls and mechanics allowed steering the plane into any direction and altitude.

On August 8th, 1908, Wilbur Wright did the first public demonstration in Le Mans before a larger audience. Until the end of the year, he had improved the flights, flew higher and longer in front of ever larger audiences, which came from all over France to watch the flying apparatus. At the same time, in September 1908, Orville Wright was busy showcasing the second airplane in Virginia to military officials and the public.

Please note: 1908 was the first year, when the public became aware that man was able to fly in a motorized and steerable plan.

A year later, from August 22nd to 29th, 1909, the first Grand Aeronautic Week in Reims in the Champagne took place. Some 38 planes entered the competition, of which 23 were flown by as many pilots. Again: in 1908 there was a total of two planes, that could demonstrate that flying works. Less than a year later, there were 38 planes of which 23 flew.

To make one thing clear: those flying machines were pretty limited in their functions. They could only fly on clear and quiet weather. They couldn’t start or land in foggy conditions or at night. They were pretty shaky constructions. Crossing an ocean was out of question, and their speed was pretty moderate for today’s expectations. They couldn’t land on aircraft carriers (which didn’t exist yet), and carrying loads beside a pilot and passenger wasn’t possible either.

But a few years later, planes were used in World War 1. Mail was transported with them, and 30 years later they became metal birds, and 100 years later they have become a totally normal and cheap form of transportation for us.

As it happened with planes, this will happen with driver-less vehicles. As soon as a technological breakthrough happened, it will be copied and many new entrepreneurs are getting busy with it. The adoption rate – the speed with which a technology is accepted and used by consumers – is similar to an S-curve.

Technology Adoption rates for US-households between 1890-2019
Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/rising-speed-technological-adoption/

It’s not a linear, but an exponential curve. We humans don’t understand that easily, and how it impacts the world and with what force. That’s why it is often underestimated and downplayed.

We’ll see the same happening with autonomous cars after the breakthrough in October 2019. The next months and years will be full of critics, who won’t be able to see and admit the facts, and will then be pushed aside.

Ernest Archdeacon, the Wright brother’s most outspoken critic, had to rescind in 1908, after witnessing the flights themselves, and apologized for having done injustice. We will observe the same with autonomous driving, and this will come as sure as eggs is eggs.

This article was also published in German.

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