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Don’t Fear Progress. Profit From It!

Jeff Siegel

Written By Jeff Siegel

Posted February 12, 2024

Early-stage, technological progress has always been a tough sell to the masses.

Primarily because most people are just afraid of that which they do not understand.

Let me explain …

Take, for instance, rail travel.

In 1823, Dr. Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London, said that rail travel at high speeds was not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia. 

We look at that quote today, and laugh.  How absurd for someone to think such a thing.  Especially today, when you consider the Shanghai Maglev Train, which clocks in at more than 260 mph.  To put that in perspective, such a train could theoretically take you from New York to DC in about 45 minutes.  And no, you wouldn’t suffocate. 

Or consider the high-speed Shinkansen train in Japan, which can clock in at 200 mph.  It’s one of the most reliable, safest, and fastest modes of transport in the country.  

In fact, in 1889, if one wanted to travel from Tokyo to Osaka by train, it would take more than 16 hours. Today, the Shinkansen can do that route in two and half hours. 

Now imagine if Dr. Lardner was able to impede progress on high speed rail because the masses believed that such a thing would cause them to die of asphyxia.

To be fair, in 1823, few people could even wrap their heads around the idea of traveling so fast, and that made a lot of folks very uncomfortable. 

There was also a lot of pushback against the internal combustion vehicle, back when people were more than happy with their horses and buggies.  Some even suggested that the internal combustion vehicle would never amount to anything.

Take, for instance, the story of Horace Rackham.

In 1903, the president of the Michigan Savings Bank told Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, “the horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”

Fortunately, Rackham didn’t listen, and invested $5,000 in Ford stock.  He later sold it for $12.5 million.

Beyond Rackham’s good fortune and foresight, there’s also the issue of just how much the world benefited from internal combustion. 

The ability to become a mobile society.  

The ability to move food and medicine quickly and efficiently.

The ability to enable fire departments and police departments to respond rapidly to emergency calls. 

Nearly every single convenience we have today can be traced back to the “horseless carriage.”

Now imagine if the world went along with the president of the Michigan Savings Bank back in 1903, and we never embraced cars.  Where would we be?

I don’t bring this up to criticize those who fear technological progress, or simply choose to trivialize it instead of understand it.  Instead, I bring this up as a reminder that the whole concept of technological progress is that the development of new technologies that can make the world a better place, is in perpetual motion.

I thought about this the other day after reading a new survey from Forbes which indicated a lot of doubt and uncertainty about the future of autonomous vehicles.

Here are some highlights: 

  • 93% of Americans have concerns about some aspect of self-driving cars, with safety and technology malfunctions topping the list.
  • 51% of consumers are somewhat or very unlikely to own or use a self-driving vehicle in the next five years
  • 61% of Americans wouldn’t trust a self-driving car with their loved ones or children

I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with the idea of autonomous driving just yet.  But I know it’s coming, because the benefits far outweigh the downsides.  And most of those “downsides,” will be rectified over time.  Just like with any new technology.

As far as the benefits, though, they are significant.  Particularly when it comes to safety.

According to the NHTSA, more than 90% of car crashes are the result of driver error.  Imagine a scenario where “driver error” is no longer a concern.  This is a very big deal.

With autonomous vehicles, you’ll also have less traffic congestion. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas found that autonomous vehicles could reduce congestion-related delays by as much as 60%.  

Worth noting: less traffic congestion results in less wasted time for commuters and a reduction in fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.  

Another benefit, albeit one that we don’t hear much about, is that autonomous vehicles can allow those with disabilities to have more independence.  Today, if you are physically incapable of driving a vehicle, you have to rely on a friend, family member, ride hailing service or government-run transportation services.   Having access to autonomous vehicles could completely change someone’s life for the better.

So yes, while I understand that this technology is still in its infancy, to eschew it because of fear would be a monumental mistake. 

Of course, it will be interesting to see how quickly this technology goes from experimental to commonplace.  I give it 20 years, with Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) and Waymo, which is owned by Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG), locking in the most market share since they were the ones that got to the good grass first. 

I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.

 

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