(This is a translation (with inevitable slight edits) from Norwegian of an op-ed Carl Störmer (who, in all fairness, had the idea) and I had in the Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv.)
A self-driving future
Espen Andersen, BI Norwegian Business School and Carl Störmer, Jazzcode AS
Norway should become the world’s premier test laboratory for self-driving cars.
Norway needs to find new areas of development after oil – and we should go for something the whole world wants, where we have local advantages, and where we will develop deep and important knowledge even if the original idea does not succeed. We suggest that Norway should become the world’s premier test laboratory for self-driving cars – a “moon landing” we can develop far further than what we have been able to do from our expertise in sub-sea petroleum extraction.
Self-driving cars will do for personal transportation what e-mail has done for snail mail. Tesla-founder Elon Musk says Teslas will drive themselves in two hears – they already can change lanes and park themselves in your garage. The “summon“-function (a “come here”-command for your car) could, in principle, work across the entire USA.
An electrical self-driving vehicle will seldom par, choose the fastest or most economical route, always obey the traffic laws, and emit no pollutants. A society with self-driving cars can reduce the number of cars by 70-90%, free up about 30% more space in large cities, reduce traffic accidents by 90%, and drastically reduce local air pollution.
Google’s self-driving cars have driven several million kilometers without self-caused accidents, but there are still many technical problems left to solve. The cars work well in the well marked and carefully mapped roads of sunny California. The self-driving cars drive well, but the human drivers do not. But we cannot execute a sudden transition – for a long time, human and automated drivers will have to coexist.
Norway has unique advantages as a lab. In Norway, we can develop our own self-driving cars, but also be the first nation to really start using them. We do not have our own car industry to protect, we are quick to purchase and start to use new technologies, we are such a small country that decision paths are short, and should an international company make a marketing blunder in Norway, the damage will be limited to a very small market. We can easily change our laws to allow for testing of self-driving cars: Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger has enough traffic issues and large enough populations to suffice for a serious experiment. As a nation, we are focused on environmental issues, innovation and employment.
Norway’s bad road standard is an advantage. Norway has plenty of snow and ice, bad weather and bad roads. Today’s self-driving cars need clear road markings to be able to drive safely. But Norway has world leading capabilities in communication and coordination technology: The oil industry has learned how to continuously position ships in rough seas with an accuracy of about five centimeters. Telenor is a world-leading company in building robust mobile phone networks in complicated terrain. Technology developed for Norwegian conditions will work anywhere in the world.
Norway needs self-driving cars more than most nations. Norway is the world’s richest and most equal country, creating a modern welfare state through automation and technology-based productivity improvements. The transportation industry is over-ripe for automation. The technology can maintain productivity growth and offer a new life for many people – the blind, the old and the physically handicapped – who do not have access to cheap and simple transportation today. It will create many jobs – think before and after the smart phone here – that can be created based on abundant and cheap transportation.
Norway will win even if we don’t succeed. Lots of new technology has to be developed to make self-driving cars from experiment to production: For instance, software has to be developed that can handle extremely complicated situations when autonomous cars will have to share the road with tired human drivers. More importantly, lots of products and services can be built on top of self-driving cars, business models have to be developed, and many industries will be impacted. The insurance business, for instance, will have to adapt to a market with very few accidents. Even the donor organ market will be impacted – though traffic accident organs by no means make up the majority of organs available, there might be a shortage of available organs.
Norway has faced tremendous changes before. We have transited from being harvested ice to electric refrigertation (in the process enabling our large fishing and fish farming industries), from sail to steam shipping, from fixed line telephony to mobile phones. Our politicians have, quite wisely, created an electric car policy ensuring that we have the highest density of electric cars in the world (10% of all Teslas are sold in Norway.) Norway has everything to earn and very little to lose by going all in for self-driving cars.
Let’s do it!