Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Alert to the press: prototypes aren't finished products

I rise today to do something I find strange.  I'm actually going to defend Elon Musk.  Musk is receiving a significant amount of negative press after his unveiling of the Boring Company's (if you need to throw stones, do so at that name) pilot tunnel.

To the shock and dismay of many people, the prototype is only a mile long and uses Tesla cars rather than the futuristic car depicted in mockups.  People who were invited to take part in the drive felt the ride was a bit rough and the cars didn't travel as fast as promised.  These are the same people who will complain about wrinkled table cloths at a five star restaurant - completely missing the artistry in the food.

For heaven's sake, Musk just unveiled a prototype tunnel under Los Angeles, built in the last year or so at his own expense.  Could we stop for a moment and recognize the work involved to get planning approval and simply to build a mile long tunnel in a crowded metropolitan area like Los Angeles? 

Further, could we acknowledge for a second that it is a prototype, a very rough proof of concept - not meant to be a complete and final solution?  The problem with many consumers of new innovations is that they take a solution at face value and don't appreciate the potential for further refinements.  Who today using an Apple iPhone X would go back to the initial iPhone?  Over time Apple has improved and added features and benefits as it learned.  So to will Musk if he decides to move ahead with his plans.

But perhaps the biggest wow factor that the pundits miss is the cost.  Musk is interested in taking cost out of the digging of the tunnel and claims to have built the mile long tunnel for about $10M.  In contrast, the last time Los Angeles expanded its subway system it paid about $1B per mile for its tunnel.  Clearly we aren't comparing apples to apples - the subway tunnel was larger and more complex, but we can see that Musk may be able to take the cost of digging a tunnel down significantly.  Why isn't this - the most difficult and complex part of the whole project - the focus of the article, rather than how smooth the ride is?

I can't say I'm surprised. Almost any prototype and many 1.0 versions of products are very simple and basic, and consumers fail to understand how rapidly they can be improved as companies come up the learning curve.  We consumers often look at something like this prototype tunnel or a first version of a project and think that the solution in front of us is as good as it will get, while visionaries recognize how fast they will be able to improve the solution. 

In this context, the best response I can come up with to support Musk is:  pearls before swine.  Musk is showing the immense potential of a technology, and the pundits miss the incredible outcomes delivered to date to complain about how smooth the ride is, in a tunnel 30 feet under the surface of Los Angeles.  Probably the only privately funded tunnelbuilt in California outside of drug smugglers.  And yet we are still talking about how smooth the ride is in a prototype tunnel?

Prototypes aren't finished products and shouldn't be evaluated that way.  This isn't just a punditry failure; businesses do the same things to some of their best ideas.  They judge them too quickly and too harshly on metrics that only a completed product should be expected to meet.  I guess I expected a bit more wonder and amazement about the technology and the progress Musk has made.

Let's wait to judge the solution when it is a completed solution, and not apply rigid evaluation criteria suitable for a final product on a rough prototype.  Businesses can learn from this example.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:58 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home