Everyone is talking about autonomous cars. Whether is urbanists talking about how streets will change, to our grandmas thinking about how they can get rid of their cars, it’s a phenomenon that is going to change the way that we fundamentally move, share, and interact with our environment.
This buzz follows the media blowing up our digital platforms with articles about who first to the market. The excitement stems from knowing something big is coming but everyone is racing to get their hands on it first. However, I wanted to take a step back make the point that being first to the market really means nothing. It’s about appropriation and building on ideas.
Autonomous cars will not / are not the first technological advances that have changed the way we live. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
The first car was created by Karl Benz in 1885. However it wasn’t until about 1920 when Henry Ford’s Model T really made rocket sales. By learning how to assemble* an automobile with interchangeable parts**, he was able to drop the price of a Model T from $850 (about $16,500 in today’s time) to about $300. By also increasing the minimum wage from $2.34/day to $5/day he made it possible for the workers in the manufacturing plants to buy the vehicles they were building themselves. The rest is history. With cars that could go at faster speeds, humans chose to settle on the outskirts of towns and cities (for lower rent, more space, etc) causing urban sprawl. This hasn’t just affected agglomeration economies but also has caused the creation of different economies (auto repair shops, gas stations, fast food, city / highway construction, state patrol/police).
The first major social network, Friendster came roaring out of the gate, picking up three million users in its first few months. It was up and running a year before MySpace, let alone Facebook. The first thing most people remember about Friendster, after it got popular, is that it was infuriatingly slow and unreliable. Friendster simply wasn’t ready for its success and wasn’t able to scale. Now with over 1.13 billion daily active users (as of September 2016), Facebook is the third-busiest site on the internet, and has built an extensive infrastructure to support this already massive and still growing user base. They learned from their predecessors.
Remember Encarta? I used to love putting in the CD and hearing the sound that it made when it loaded up. Then came Yahoo which changed the way we think about research and find information. And Google. ‘Nough said.
Does anyone remember palm pilots? It was a generic terms for the PDAs (personal digital assistant), but only Palm really dominated the field (similar to how we use the term “Kleenex” to mean tissues even though it’s a brand). Palm’s Treo was one of the first major smartphones with a color touchscreen, web browser, etc. But it was a beast. And as rivals made their phones slimmer and more sophisticated, Palm couldn’t keep up. Then Apple introduced the revolutionary iPhone in 2007, and the Treo was toast. The iPhone fundamentally changed the way we think about PDAs, our phones, and our devices.
And there are so many more examples: the iPod, TiVo, Netscape, Yahoo (Google is the #1 website on the internet)
So what all does that tell us?
Keep innovating. Especially if you are in the technology sector, you can’t kid yourself that your product will stay appealing forever, or that serious competitors will never come along. Build on the ideas of predecessors (even digging up old ideas and revising them). I’ve also talked about how we are moving backwards at all times because history repeats itself.
*The assembly line was invented by Ransom Olds in 1885 when he built the Oldsmobile**The concept of interchangeable parts was created by Eli Whitney in 1798 when he built muskets for the US when they were going to war with France