Doctor Gadget: Road Races: When Will We Stop Driving?

Technology has truly become a global phenomenon. Silicon Valley is widely regarded as the cradle of the revolution, but it’s far from alone. Years ago, Japan became the first of the Asian Tigers of technology. Now it’s been joined by China and South Korea. Scandinavia is another hotbed, especially in the mobile phone industry, with companies such as Nokia tracing their roots to the region.

Here’s one gadget hotbed you might not know about: Israel. I’ve met dozens of innovative, hard-charging Israeli technology companies in recent years. They’re fast, aggressive and determined. Many are doing amazing things with digital video and game platforms; others are creating international TV hits like Homeland.

So it came as no surprise to hear about an Israeli company that’s jumping into the global race to create the world’s first commercially viable driverless car.

This is the Mobileye. It looks like an Audi sedan, right? That’s because it’s an Audi sedan. Except this one has been outfitted with Mobileye’s sophisticated video camera and software system that uses Artificial Intelligence to help the car drive itself. It can’t do everything autonomously—but it can speed up, slow down, recognize traffic lights, and drive on the highway at speeds up to 65 mph. Impressive.

Who are the Mobileye’s competitors? Google, for one. Its robot vehicle has been in the press for months, driving itself all over the roads of Silicon Valley. Google’s system is a wondrous combination of lasers, cameras, and motion detectors. It connects to the cloud and accesses a huge amount of data from its sensors to effectively “see” the world around it and steer the vehicle in real time. The Google car can change lanes, make turns, avoid pedestrians and traffic and spill coffee in your lap, all by itself. (Okay, I made up that last one.)

Far more impressive than the Mobileye. But far more expensive too.

And that’s where this race gets interesting. Technology has long been driven by two competing objectives: the quest to build something new and fantastic, versus the quest to build something new and fantastic and cheap.

Fantastic is cool. Cheap usually prevails. Remember the Sony Betamax? Everyone loved the product; its videotape format was far superior to VHS, lasted forever, and delivered fantastic picture quality. But the VHS eventually won out—at least with consumers—chiefly because the Betamax was really expensive.

Another interesting rule of technology is that the first mover doesn’t always win. In fact, it usually loses. The second or third version of a product is most often the one that learns from the pathfinder’s mistakes, irons out the glitches, drops the price and catches fire with consumers.

Example: Before Facebook ruled the world, there was something called MySpace. And it was really, really popular.

What does all this mean for our driverless car? Google clearly has the deep pockets and time on its hands to develop the most sophisticated, mind-blowing, driverless vehicle ever known. But that doesn’t mean it will be affordable for the masses.

Like Google, Mobileye isn’t even a car company; they just make really great cameras and smart software. But if the Mobileyes of the world can persevere and innovate regarding the price tag, you just might find yourself driving an Israeli car one of these days.

Or should I say, not driving.

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