If you live in the U.S., the likelihood is that on Sunday nights, once the late afternoon football game has concluded, you stay tuned to the CBS channel you have been watching to catch the latest installment of longtime No. 1 investigative journalism show, 60 Minutes. This Thanksgiving weekend featured an interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos by reporter Charlie Rose that not only reached the massive typical audience, but has set the Internet on fire. The reason was Bezos chose the venue to bring attention to his latest disruptive innovation: Drone-delivered packages.
You read correctly. Not only did Bezos reflect on the need to be disruptive, but he unveiled for public view the prototype of a drone Amazon is working on. The goal is a 30-minute or less delivery of packages of up to five pounds, which Bezos says is 86 percent of all Amazon orders, to places within a 10-mile radius of Amazon’s expanding distribution center footprint. Bezos said a lot of work still had to be done on the technology so that it did not hurt anyone and obeyed the rules of the air, but that he was hopeful drones could be making deliveries within the next five to six years assuming it got the requisite government approvals.
Here is the link to the 60 Minutes broadcast, which includes the transcript of the interview. If you missed all or any part of it, you should spend time watching and/or reading. I thought the drone observations were secondary to a series of other items in the piece on logistics, Amazon Web Services, and this exchange.
Jeff Bezos: Companies have short life spans Charlie. And Amazon will be disrupted one day.
Charlie Rose: And you worry about that?
Jeff Bezos: I don’t worry about it 'cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.
Charlie Rose: And your job is to make sure that you delay that date?
Jeff Bezos: I would love for it to be after I’m dead.
Source: 60 Minutes interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, December 1, 2013
The interview is so rich with provocative thoughts that it is hard to pick out just one for commentary, but the drone unveiling certainly has turned out to be a show stopper. For the reasons below, one can only hope it does not get off the ground.
At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, as I observed in a piece just a few days ago about why cell phone service on airplanes is an example of “just because you can does not make it a good idea,” this may be an even better one. Putting aside the issue raised by Bezos about perfecting a drone’s ability to find me, land safely, avoid wreaking havoc by hitting things like power lines, etc., the siren song of convenience should be trumped in this case by common sense.
At the risk of droning on myself, here are just a few reasons why we don’t need drone deliveries. First, I saw a comment online that says it all in many ways in two words, “TARGET PRACTICE.” There is no need to elaborate.
Second. No system is failsafe, and the road to nirvana is always paved with good intentions. For one thing, the drones could be hacked and exploited in ways thinkable and unimaginable. Diverting packages or sending them to people and places who did not ask for a delivery is bad enough, but the temptation for using such vehicles for surveillance will be irresistible.
Third. Now that the drone idea is out in public, the realities are that Amazon will not be alone in trying to get a first-mover advantage, the barriers to entry for enterprising competitors will be low at least on the technology side of things. That said, assuming this has wings (pardon the pun) imagine how challenging licensing use will be! Are we going to grant exclusive air rights to companies?
Fourth. Have you ever spent time with folks who fly remote control model air vehicles of all types? They are extremely noisy to say the least. Will there be “no fly zones?”
Fifth. How would you like to be the insurance company trying to figure out the cost of liability insurance. The risks involved when things go wrong are immense and almost incalculable. I am not just referring to drone strikes on personal property, but mishaps involving critical infrastructure. This is an area that literally could have the potential of re-defining the term “collateral damage.”
I happen to be a firm believer in automation of most things. However, turning our skies into a modern version of the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds so we can have 30-minute delivery reminds me of a statement I once heard by the late author Norman Mailer. He explained that he knew the apocalypse would have arrived if they put Muzak (the once pervasive supplier of popular music in public spaces and when we are on hold on phone calls that is supposed to affect our moods) in prison rooms that contained electric chairs. If Mailer were still with us, I suspect he might amend his comments to make commercial drone usage for personal package delivery a topic of dread.
Drones for package delivery might not be a sign of the apocalypse. However, given growing “Big Brother” concerns it certainly appears to be getting closer. All we can and should hope is that this idea does not take off.
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