Why Not Autonomous Everything Else First?


A fully autonomous kitchen would be far more interesting to me than a self-driving car.

We are told stories about the, er, drive to autonomous vehicles as if it were our generation’s Manhattan Project or Moon shot. Car companies and their suppliers are pouring money into development and spending on PR, as tech companies large and small are doing the same.

Why not autonomous everything else first?

I mean, kitchens function much as they did 50 years ago. Even considering the addition of microwave ovens, electrified chopping, and voice-activated timers, the act of cooking is overwhelmingly dependent on active user control.

Ditto on automated bathrooms. Imagine if the acts of shaving, washing, drying and styling, lotion-ing, and brushing your teeth were somehow accomplished in some radically new way, so that you could spend the time reading (or how about sleeping an extra half hour?).

Maybe entire homes could be automated to operate as sensate entities that anticipated resident needs, saved energy, and, oh wait, technology companies were promising that a decade ago, and many of us still can’t figure out how to use the half-dozen remotes in our living rooms.

Why the fascination with cars?

Fewer (or no) accidents would mean that an average of 35,000 Americans annually would still be alive. Commuting would be faster if cars could coordinate with one another on the road. More efficient transportation might reduce air pollution.

But not one of the companies chasing autonomous driving technology has dedicated its operations and profits to serve such public goods, last time I checked. Plus, if you added up all the people who are killed or injured in home accidents (including fires), and the time wasted doing household chores (and energy wasted), the numbers might start to compare more than contrast.

Social impact isn’t the reason.

The immense economic value to the industry could be the reason; from advanced driver assistance systems, or “ADAS,” to fully independent system control, the technology will generate zillions for the race’s winners (see stock prices above).

But automation is already a reality in the world, generating incredibly huge value in places as diverse as offices and factory floors, to hospital operating rooms. Any serious gambler would put their money on industrial automation delivering even greater zillions over the next few years versus the value generated if/when a self-driving car finally arrives.

The robot takeover has and will continue to transform every human endeavor; transportation is notable not because it’s an exception, but simply because it won’t avoid its effects.

Economic impact isn’t the reason.

No, I think we’re told so much about autonomous cars because they’re necessary.

Not for us. For them.

The tech companies’ audacious presumption that they can build cars is a necessary distraction from their real business model, which is to solicit, capture, and then monetize user data. Every “leaked” car-related headline is one less story about the dissolution of individual privacy, and the monetization of our every action and interaction.

The traditional players in the automotive industry face a fundamental, perhaps existential long-term change in the marketplace.  Changing finances, lifestyles, concerns about the environment, and a host of other trends challenge the value proposition of using a car, let alone owning one. For instance, increasingly urbanized customers may choose to use ever-improved public transportation, or people everywhere could forego cars and use VR instead.

So it’s necessary for them to redefine vehicles before consumers tell them they’re no longer interested.

Nobody is threatening to quit cooking or brushing their teeth.

Necessity is a powerful call to action, but it’s no substitute for the “pull” of demand. People aren’t asking for autonomous cars. That’s why there’s such a concerted effort to tell us about them.

I’m all for it, actually. The technology is wildly promising, and if carmakers and/or tech companies succeed in inventing a new concept that makes people’s lives safer and easier, it’s a win-win. I hope they make those zillions.

It’s just that nobody would have to sell me on the merits of an autonomous kitchen.

I’m ready to buy now.