When Autonomous Vehicles Leave The Nest

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she is no sole provider. The US military has long been Necessity’s devoted husband. As the happy couple is now reaching its eighteenth anniversary since settling down for a life together in Afghanistan, it may be that the children of this extended sabbatical – namely, autonomous vehicles – will soon finally move out into the world on their own terms. Quite possibly, they will rebel against their loving parents.

The main characteristic of autonomous vehicles is the ability to travel where human drivers cannot comfortably, safely, or cheaply go themselves. Some examples include small autonomous trucks operating in mountainous areas, large autonomous trucks crossing deserts, autonomous boats accessing islands where no good ports exist, and aircraft using JPADS (Joint Precision Airdrop System) invented in Afghanistan in recent years to deliver cargo to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible as a result of natural disasters, natural barriers, or war.

These inventions may have two huge effects. First, they may help to overthrow the tyranny of Necessity, easing the transportation of basic necessities in poor countries in a way similar to what mobile phones have been doing for communication. Second, they may undermine the dominant position of the US, by empowering large, strategically located countries that have until now been limited by those very same barriers autonomous vehicles may help to overcome.

Five world regions stand out here, as areas where autonomous vehicles could be especially impactful.

One is the Latin world, particularly the Spanish world, which is characterized by mountains, rainforests, deserts, and narrow seas like the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Another is the Arctic, with its air, land, and icy sea routes linking Asia, America, and Europe, encompassing large expanses of remote, resource-rich territory. A third region is Southeast Asia, with its islands and peninsulas from Taiwan to Australia, and jungles, Himalayas, and sky-high plateaus between India and China. Fourth, the vast, vibranium-rich heartlands of Africa: from the ten Great Lake countries (including Ethiopia) in the south and east, to the ten Saharan countries in the north and west.

But perhaps most important is the “Greater Middle East”: the Islamic world from Central Asia to Central Africa, spanning deserts, seas, and mountains, and sitting atop a sea of oil that will probably continue to be necessary to power any autonomous vehicles – or, at least, power any autonomous aircraft. Particularly well-situated may be the oil-rich Gulf states, such as Iraq, and the mountainous Central Asian ones, such as Afghanistan. This would be an interesting turn – one the one hand, it might actually help fulfil America’s dream of bringing democracy to the Middle East; on the other hand, it might help fulfil America’s nightmare of Islam re-emerging as a global political force.

This would be nothing new, however. Mobile phones were invented during the Vietnam War era, yet they have since empowered Communist China more than any other major state (if also, arguably, helping to de-radicalize China). Britain invented railroads during the years between its wars with the US, only to see the US empowered by railroads more than any other major power, and inherit Britain’s leading status. (Railroads also helped to de-radicalize the US: by linking America’s Northeast and Midwest they undermined the South, which had previously enjoyed influence in the Midwest by way of sailing up the Mississippi). Just as Necessity is not a single mother, Invention is no only child. Rather it has two siblings, born just moments after humanity’s first and greatest tool was invented, when its inventor accidentally burnt himself celebrating. Invention’s siblings are Illumination, and Irony.











  1. I think you may need to fill in the gaps a bit here. Why exactly will autonomous vehicles lead to a renaissance for the areas you mention? If the implication is that autonomous vehicles will be better drivers, then it’s true that that could improve transport links in regions like the remote Himalaya, or St Helena, where human-controlled aircraft find landing difficult and slightly dangerous. But the number of places where this would be significant would seem to be extremely small. Moreover, any serious economic shift would have to be on the ground, not just in the air (air just isn’t going to shift enough stuff, particularly with rising petrol prices), and that requires roads, which are a massive infrastructure investment. And deserts are already great terrain for driving (or flying) over (as shown by the US!). So I think I’m missing something here.

    But more broadly, I think this is getting caught up in the long grass: the real future of autonomous vehicles isn’t in the Himalaya or the Amazon, it’s in London and New York and Shanghai!

  2. You’re right, of course. Truth is I wrote this as a writing sample for a job application, so I was trying to sound slick, and keeping below a word count. On autonomous vehicles, my guess would be that they will be most impactful in areas where the labour costs in transportation represent the highest share of the area’s economic activity. This may not include deserts — though in some cases it might, for instance in deserts where security risks are high — but I think it probably will include mountainous areas, where in many cases the only roads available are little more than (very bumpy) footpaths. To take your point on fuel costs remaining relevant, I would be most interested in areas that are close to waterways or railroads, but today have difficulty in accessing them cheaply as a result of barriers like cliffs, mountains, no harbours/ports big enough to hold large ships, etc. I also think mountainous areas rich in energy or close to trade routes (Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, the Balkans, Morocco, etc.) could be worth watching. ..and for air travel, I agree they can’t carry enough to be impactful on their own in most cases, but I think there may be a chance that uav’s that can carry containers from ship to ship or from ship to shore might be hugely impactful. In particular, in potentially bringing cheap shipping to coastal areas that have smooth coasts or cliffs/mountains alongside their coasts to

  3. Will cities like London, New York, and Shanghai be the biggest beneficiaries of autonomous vehicles? I can see why it’s plausible they might — traffic is a pain of course, and obviously there may be no other straightforward way (apart from building subways) to build bigger and bigger cities without causing terrible traffic jams or too much sprawl. On the other hand, won’t these vehicles mainly just result in these cities going from efficient to super-efficient, whereas in a place like, say, Nepal, maybe they will bring about a much bigger (and maybe much more desirable) change from inefficient to efficient. Also, there is the security issues to consider — fears of a mass hacking of vehicles’ braking systems, or fears of autonomous vehicles being used remotely in terrorist attacks. Perhaps these security issues will actually prove much more of a barrier to using autonomous vehicles in big cities than they will on a remote mountain road somehere.

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