The autonomous, or self-driving car has gotten a ton of press recently, as Google’s cars log a million and a half road miles, Apple hints at a car, and Tesla’s autopilot polarizes users. Many are excited about this technology, but most people have reservations about handing over the wheel to a computer. In this essay, I would like to examine an interesting parallel between the business world and biology that I think is at the heart of one major problem with autonomous cars. This is the problem of sneakers.
Bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) are masters of sneaking. Well, the males are anyway. The Bluegill is a pretty ordinary fish in most respects. It is native to eastern North America, inhabits lakes and ponds, and eats invertebrates in the water. However, it happens to be pretty freaky when it comes to reproduction. The males come in three types, or morphs. The first is the parental male. He is large and territorial, and courts females that visit his nest. Boring. The second is the sneaker. This smallest male rushes in while a parental is in the act of copulation and squirts ejaculate in an attempt to fertilize some of the eggs before swimming away. Rude, to say the least. The sneaker grows into the satellite. At this point, he looks so much like a female that the dominant males lets him get close to the nest. When a real female comes to mate, the sneaker interrupts the courting and fertilizes the female. Rude in the extreme.
We tend to think of biology as conforming to certain rules of engagement, but we must always remember that genes will persist as long as a strategy produces offspring. Sneaker bluegills require less food than dominant males, and need to expend less energy making nests. Unless dominant males evolve a way of preventing them, sneaking will remain a good evolutionary strategy. Sneakers have been found across a wide range of animals, from arthropods to birds and reptiles, highlighting the importance of animals moving toward strategies that provide more offspring for less work.
How do ejaculating fish relate to autonomous cars? The business world has interesting parallels with biology due to the nature of the free market. In essence, both use ‘survival of the fittest’ to optimize outcomes. In biology, the trait that leads to the most offspring will increase in frequency. In business, the company that most appeals to consumers will be the most successful. Either way, organisms that fail to reproduce or companies that fail to sell products are lost, and the best suited persist.
To extend the analogy, we can imagine a fairly common business scenario that mirrors the bluegills’ world. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars each year on developing new drugs, so in this scenario, they are the parental males. However, once their patents expire, generic brands can produce the same drugs for much cheaper, because they do not need the R&D and advertising investment. These are the satellite males. They are usually very successful, because they offer the same product for cheaper. You can even see mimicry, just like in the fish! Generic brands will use the same color packaging as name brands to convince consumers that their product is the same thing. Name brands usually persist because their investment attracts consumers, but generic brands can do just as well.
One of the hallmarks of biological systems is a distinctive lack of cooperation. “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” is Tennyson’s phrase that is often used in discussions of competition. One reason that cooperation is rare is sneaking of a different sort. As soon as some organisms begin cooperating to achieve a goal, there are individuals that recognize that they can get the benefit of the goal without wasting energy in the cooperating. Imagine a group of crows working together to attack a deer. With enough birds, they could probably kill the deer and feast for weeks. However, any birds that did not participate in the attack could benefit from the meat just as much as those that did the work. Moreover, the lazy birds would not have to expend the energy and potential risk of attacking a big animal. In the long run, the lazy birds would probably produce more offspring, making it unlikely for cooperation to evolve.
If corporations cooperated to sell products, they could certainly do better. However, any companies that reduce prices will sell more products, so barring illegal activity, cooperation of that sort is impossible in capitalism. So we come back by a very roundabout way to the question of autonomous cars and the main point of this essay.
The autonomous car paradigm requires companies to cooperate and is therefore highly vulnerable to sneaking.
Autonomous cars promise us roads free of accidents, traffic, and all the pesky risks associated with human drivers. Proponents imagine a future where intersections are navigated efficiently, merges happen fluidly, and the user is delivered safely to his or her destination. Companies will be free to innovate in car interiors – to provide luxurious sleeping quarters or high-tech entertainment systems, and consumers will be happy because they don’t have to drive anymore.
Autonomous cars will be able to accomplish all of this because cars can sense each other, and react to other cars far faster than humans. With perfect knowledge of other cars’ movements, cars can optimize traffic flow
But then imagine that one company, say Hyundai, develops technology that will get its users to their destination 5% faster than other cars. They would be like the very first sneaker fish, and they would be very successful. Suddenly shopping for anything but the Hyundai would be like choosing the slower route on Google maps. Ford, Volvo, BMW etc. will all have to follow suit, developing technology that will make their cars navigate intersections more efficiently, or perhaps allow manual override to break the speed limit, or perhaps run a red light when no police are nearby, or even edge out other cars in traffic.
When cars are programmed to avoid collisions, it becomes very easy to get around them. Roads as a whole flow better with cooperation, but individual cars can go faster if they sneak. I predict that driving algorithm efficiency will be an important selling point for autonomous cars, and this will degrade their safety and effectiveness.
So does this mean that the future of autonomous cars just be the same messy driving world that it currently is? Probably not. Consumers will choose faster cars until they start becoming unsafe. And legislation will undoubtedly prevent some sneaks from ever occurring. But barring centralized control of car software, there will be competition for speedier autonomous cars. Roads will not be as safe as they could possibly be, but they will still be way safer than they are now. And you will be able to get into your vehicle after a night on the town and say, “Car, I’m drunk, take me home.” Perhaps that is the most important outcome in the end. But when in twenty years you start seeing ads for Chevrolets with 7.2% faster transit times (city/highway average), I just hope you see them for the ejaculating sneaker fish that they are.