by Alex Davies
The “big man” theory holds that much of history is made by heroes – big, muscular, smart guys (always guys) who reshape the future with raw strength and brilliance. The new book by Alex Davies, a WIRED alumnus, refutes this outdated theory. In Led, Davies delves into the history of autonomous vehicles and the wacky, spirited cast of characters (still mostly guys) who work to bring technology to life. As Davies reveals, teamwork makes the dream work. Until it doesn’t. Then the trials – and in the case of an engineer, the handcuffs – fly.
Eventually, robot cars could reshape the way modern life works. Autonomous vehicles could represent a $ 7 trillion business by 2050; today, multi-billion dollar companies like Alphabet, General Motors, Ford and Tesla are rushing to fix problems. But at the turn of the century, VAs were an academic workhorse. Then an obscure clause in a 2001 fundraising bill poured government money into the development of robotic technology. A few years later, Darpa organized a robot race in the Mojave Desert. The wacky newcomers are the same engineers who are now cashing in millions in the world’s largest audiovisual companies. For many, the money was a great incentive. But as one robotics tells Davies, most are driven by the classic manufacturer’s philosophy: “I was looking for something that would break the world, that I could do with my own hands, that would happen in my time.”
To paraphrase another visionary, the course of true engineering has never been smooth. Davies’ sharp tale chronicles personality clashes, philosophical divergences, funding crunches, and in a shocking number of cases, troublesome wild creatures that hinder robotics. (A tip: When running a robot through the desert, keep an eye out for native turtles, which will pee on you if you’re trying to move them.) This is a book for anyone who’s sick of the hero tale and wants to learn more about how building world-shaking robots really creaks.Aarian Marshall