QUBE and Autonomous Vehicles

In my youth I was a fan of cable television. Not so much the programs, but the systems. I would religiously watch C-SPAN’s broadcasts of cable TV industry meetings. My dream was to build and own the fiber optic utility (which still is not fully deployed).  One of the fascinating things about the era was the hope about what the future of Cable TV could bring. 500 channels of course, but also education, information, democracy. One of the grandest experiments was QUBE.

As wikipedia writes:

QUBE was an experimental two-way, multi-programmed cable television system that played a significant role in the history of American interactive television. It was launched in Columbus, Ohio, on December 1, 1977. Highly publicized as a revolutionary advancement, the QUBE experiment introduced viewers to several concepts that became central to the future development of TV technology: pay-per-view programs, special-interest cable television networks, and interactive services.

QUBE launched prototypes of CableTV stalwarts Nickelodeon and MTV.

This was ironically, I suppose, a Warner Communications (i.e. Time-Warner) endeavor, given TW’s recent attempt to sell itself out to AT&T.

Qube Remote Control
QUBE Remote Control

While many of the hopes of the era came to pass, two-way TV never really caught on. We comment on programs in real time now on the Internet, not through the television. Sure we have one-way TV, and can request different one-way TV (pay-per-view), but the data flows are extremely asymmetric. People are still not broadcasting their own “CableTV” shows from their living rooms, community access is in a studio, while YouTube and similar services have in fact filled that dream of everyone a broadcaster – with things no one would have imagined at the time.

The Internet achieved most of CableTV system aims, while the CableTV systems, the traditional version of which are now past their peak and in decline in the US, became internet carriers. With 5G coming down the pike, that decline might accelerate.

Today we pin many of our hopes about the future on Autonomous Vehicles. I have a book on it.

They can remake cities, remove the number of cars by enabling people to effectively time-share vehicles, make better use of the roads by taking drivers out-of-the-loop, and improve safety. From the vantage point of 40 years, we can see what became of CableTV, how long it took to get widespread deployment from the ideas prototyped in Columbus, and which hopes were dashed.

Can that inform us about AVs?

  1. Not everything will pan out.
  2. Many of the goals will be achieved by other means.
  3. The changes resulting from achieving those goals are not what we imagine.
  4. New players will emerge, which are not even in existence now.
  5. Some/many/most existing players will disappear through M&A or failure.

Perhaps QUBE is a better analogy to the Automated Highway Systems proposals of the 1990s, and the Internet is the analog of the Shared Autonomous Vehicle of the 2020s. Or perhaps there are no analogies, and knowledge is not transferable.

They key is that there will be many experiments, many competing visions of the future, and failures along the way. That is part of learning. We need not predict the future accurately now, which is in any case impossible. Instead, we need to be able to adapt to changes as they come.