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Monocultures Are Bad for Automated Vehicles

Sam Abuelsamid
Oct 30, 2018

Smart Car

Whether in nature, technology, or business, monocultures are bad. With all the discussion of who is winning the race to get automated driving to market, no one seems to mention the dangers of a monoculture. Many pundits seem to be of the impression that whoever gets a commercial automated vehicle (AV) first will lock up the market. This is neither likely nor a desirable outcome.

A monoculture is an environment where a single species dominates, driving out diversity. A prime example of this occurred in 19th century Ireland, where a single variety of potato became the dominant staple food. When a blight struck, it rapidly spread through the crop, resulting in a famine.

Monoculture Is Monopoly

In business, this concept is manifested as a monopoly. Left unregulated, monopoly businesses often raise prices and abuse their power to prevent competitors from developing, as AT&T did in the phone business before it was split up in the 1980s. In technology, a monoculture can be subject to similar issues to nature. In the early 2000s, as Microsoft Windows became the dominant computing platform, malicious attackers realized they could exploit errors in the code to rapidly spread viruses across networks.

What about Vehicles?

All of this brings us to the AV, which potentially combines all these downsides. The question of which company is winning the race to bring AVs to market is one of the most frequent questions I field from members of the media. While the Guidehouse Insights Automated Vehicles Leaderboard evaluates which companies are most likely to succeed in commercializing this technology, AV developments are not actually viewed as a race.

Aptiv has provided more than 10,000 paid rides to Lyft customers in Las Vegas since launching its program during CES in January 2018. Companies like Waymo and General Motors are expected to begin services in Phoenix and San Francisco respectively in late 2018 into 2019. These services will be limited to select locations where the technology is deemed to work reliably and won’t likely be widespread until well into the 2020s.

Why Is Market Diversity Better?

From a pure market perspective, it is never desirable to have a single dominant provider since the absence of competition frequently leads to higher prices and worse service for consumers. It’s also undesirable from a technical perspective. Each of these vehicles are totally dependent on the software that perceives the world around it and makes decisions about where to go. They will also need to be highly connected to dispatch and manage the fleet.

Like the potato famine, if there is a flaw in the control software or the connectivity system, bad actors will likely find a way to exploit it. If a single provider dominates the market, the entire transportation ecosystem could be subject to being disabled or worse, harnessed in some sort of physical attack. This could be catastrophic from a social or economic perspective or both.

A single dominant automated mobility provider may also be less inclined to provide the most efficient services with an array of solutions optimized for different trips, instead going for scale and maximum revenue from fewer modes.

Policy Can Prevent Monoculture

Mobility monocultures aren’t an inevitable outcome. The nature of ride-hailing services means that there is little or no switching cost for consumers. Cities also need to put policies and platforms in place that encourage competition and coordination with local transit systems as well as micro-mobility services. Since we are still in the earliest stages of this transition, now is the time for local and state authorities to begin planning for the best outcomes before anything gets locked in.