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How quick we are to adapt

# February 6, 2024

What a completely unordinary scene it is to see cars without humans driving these days.

After Cruise was suspended, Waymo has the autonomous streets of San Francisco all to themselves. They're accompanied by a distinctive electric whir when they come down the block. This noise is no doubt a function of the Jaguar base model they use, not the Waymo design specifically, but the sound has become indelibly paired with the lidar array spinning on-top. The second you hear it, just glance outside to see one driving up the hill.

Most of the people I know in San Francisco have used a Waymo at least once. Many friends of mine swear by them.1 The fact they're self driving doesn't really enter into the equation: they just prefer the product they're being offered when they're picked up.

But I don't think that's how it starts. Most people are trepidatious at the prospect of getting into a car without a driver. They try it out in the pursuit of something new or the urging of a friend. SF is inherently the early adopter crowd after all. When it works, and starts merging into traffic, everyone is gobsmacked. You'll see Snapchats of that first ride or receive some frantic Facetimes. But after that first ride - nothing. The novelty wears off in a ride or two. People will call it like they do a taxi and play some music, do some work, or take a call. It's unremarkable.

Unremarkable at least for the people in the cars. I've gotten my fair share of jaws dropping or tourists taking pictures by blocking a crosswalk. Unlike human drivers, Waymos don't really care if you ogle.

The last year has been that way for a lot of things:

  1. LLMs with some generalized reasoning skills are now common in professional workflows. You need a block of code written and turn to CodeLlama; you need a few mockups for a creative campaign and turn to Midjourney; you need a summary of a meeting and turn to ChatGPT. This level of quality augmentation was unheard of even back in 2022. But now it's almost taken for granted by people who are focused on getting work done as productive as they can - not particularly caring for the underlying technology behind the scenes.

  2. mRNA vaccines are expected to keep up with the latest wave of virus mutations. Since they're computationally derived and synthesized without needing to hatch eggs, this process can move faster than the old vaccine R&D pipeline.2 This stands in contrast to traditional flu vaccines where they incubate a variety of different vaccines, then scale up production when they guess which strands will be in the majority.

  3. Average wifi and cellular speeds have gotten so fast that on-demand video content has become viable for almost every household in the US. You can see this in the skyrocketing engagement of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube. People aren't waiting to view this content, they expect to have a full feed of videos personalized to them and loading immediately on scroll.

It's a clear reminder that when people are exposed to magical technology, the magic quickly wears off. What's left is the product offering itself and not the initial step change. Some companies get trapped in a cycle of always chasing newness, always needing more novelty. They believe that continuous novelty will keep people hooked.

That may be true - but people will adapt faster than you can manufacture that novelty. The alternative is you can hook into something deeper. You can connect that magic to letting people lead better lives3. If your product crosses that threshold, it doesn't matter how fast people acclimate. They won't want to acclimate back to the old world.

We won't know for decades whether self-driving cars will really cross that chasm. But in the Bay, the chances are looking pretty good.

  1. This is a testament to consistency perhaps even more than quality. Sure - the cars are nice, quiet, and comfortable. But more than that it's the reliability of knowing the product you're going to get when you call a car. They're all the same in space, newness, and driving ability.

    There are fantastic Ubers but there are also pretty dangerous ones. Waymos are like purchasing a Starbucks instead of risking it on an unknown coffee shop. It could be artisan pour-over but it could be a pot brewed yesterday. 

  2. At least in the manufacturing process. FDA regulations hold them to the same standard of testing, which affects the timeline to market. 

  3. Whatever better means to you: more enjoyable, productive, connected, entertained, etc. 

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