- The average American spends 396 hours driving per year.
- An estimated 36,200 traffic fatalities occurred in the United States in 2012.
- United States consumers burned an average of 367.1 million gallons of gasoline per day in 2011.
These statistics are rather disheartening, yet are the byproduct of our vehicle-centric society. But now imagine a world where we no longer have to sit behind the driver’s seat of a car, where traffic fatalities become practically non-existent and fossil fuel consumption is drastically reduced. Seems pretty nice, right? Well buckle up, because this seemingly utopian future will become reality thanks to the driverless car (where, ironically, you actually won’t have to buckle up).
Technology now allows computers, rather than human drivers, to maneuver a vehicle from Point A to Point B using GPS systems and road sensors. Google, a founding pioneer of the technology, designed a driverless fleet that has accumulated over 300,000 accident-free miles. This has spurred companies such as Toyota, GM, Lexus, Audi and Volvo to accelerate driverless technology research. First-generation autonomous technologies, such as automated parallel parking, accident avoidance systems and adaptive cruise control are already being incorporated into vehicles. Federal government agencies are also joining the research fray. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been conducting vehicle-to-vehicle communication research and expects to issue an agency decision on connected vehicles by the end of 2013. Considering this rapid progression of driverless technology in the past several years, driverless vehicles are not a far off aspiration. They are the present. And they are undoubtedly the future.
From a pragmatic standpoint, driverless vehicles are beneficial on all levels. Traffic safety would no longer be a concern. Computers do not get tired, distracted or annoyed by other drivers. They eliminate the most dangerous element of driving—the human element. Commuting would no longer be a labor, rather it would be an extension of leisure time where one can eat, sleep, surf the internet, work or watch a movie. Consequently, society could see productivity increase and a more involved labor force as transportation limitations would be largely eliminated.
Furthermore, aspects of driving we consider social norms—stop signs, stop lights, general road signage, and overhead freeway lighting—would become obsolete. Vehicles’ ability to communicate and seamlessly weave between one another at intersections eliminates the necessity of traffic controls. Street lighting and signage will be a vestige of human-driving history: the car does not require lights or signs to know where it is going. Multiple vehicles for a family would no longer be needed: the car could continuously run and bring every individual to their required destination in a more efficient manner than multiple vehicles could. Even vehicle ownership is a concept that could become outdated. Many individuals will likely choose the convenient and relatively inexpensive option of driverless taxi services over vehicle ownership.
Driverless cars would also increase efficiency and reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned. Volvo has researched driverless “road trains,” where driverless cars would group on the freeways to improve aerodynamics and reduce wind drag. This alone could improve fuel efficiency by 30%. Additionally, driverless cars could be built using lighter materials and smaller engines because of their improved safety compared with human-operated vehicles, further improving fuel efficiency. Enormous societal benefits, including lower levels of air pollution, a healthier population, and a significant reduction of the nation’s carbon footprint, would likely result.
For many, the real interest of driverless vehicles involves nascent economic markets. Technology to set up vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication would need to be developed and built. Interaction between smart phone technologies and vehicles would be also inextricably linked. Mobile apps allowing driverless cars and users to interact (e.g. texting a vehicle you are ready to leave work in 10 minutes and the vehicle is waiting outside to pick you up) would need to be developed and operated. Transportation companies offering driverless trucking and taxi services will probably emerge. Hospitals nationwide would no longer annually treat millions of accident-related injuries. Companies greening urban landscapes of unneeded parking garages will find plenty of business. Urban designers will be in demand to find new and inventive ways to create urban environments that optimize the efficiency of driverless vehicles.
The possibilities offered by driverless cars are endless. Introduction of such technology would alter nearly every component of our lives: where we live, how we spend time while commuting, the design of cities and vehicle ownership, among others. This being said, mass production of driverless vehicles is still years away. Some automotive experts believe we could see driverless vehicles on the road in the next 10-15 years, while others believe it will be upwards of 50 years. Driverless cars would require extensive infrastructure investment and the estimated time of arrival of driverless vehicles depends on the cooperation between auto manufacturers and the government. Insurance and legal issues would also need to be clarified before driverless vehicles become commonplace. Moreover, consumers will have to buy-in to the technology to create sustainable demand. Although initial buy-in may be slow, once consumers recognize the safety of the technology and the utility gained, this blogger believes everyone will be jumping on the driverless train. So don’t buckle up and don’t get your hands on the wheel – just jump in the back, flip on your favorite TV show and enjoy the ride.
What Driverless Cars mean:
Most people think in terms of a new system under an old roof when thinking about driverless cars. It’s wrong-thinking, because driverless cars will redefine transport as we know it and even much of the operational structure of our cities.
Firstly, most of us will not personally own a driverless car. Driverless cars will give us the rise of the taxi, though the demise of the taxi-driver. They will give us network-based transport whereby we simply order-up the car we want, for the job we want, and then ditch it (or should I say it ditches itself) after you’ve used it. Network-based transport will be the ‘new roof’.
Driverless cars will be directly matched to demand, which means that most cars will be designed for single-occupancy usage only. This shift, more than anything, will revolutionise transport efficiency.
Google has demonstrated that it can fully automate its cars with no infrastructural investment in the existing road network to accommodate them. That is quite a testimony to how far this technology has come, and how close its implementation is. However, because we now know that driverless cars are the future, it might be to everyone’s advantage to look at the possibility of directly conditioning the roads to assist electronic control – for the sake of reducing net costs, and possibly improving performance.
We could look at impregnating passive-RF chips in the ground, so auto-cars can get instant and totally exact feedback on their positions (with no advanced information processing), and we can maybe install embedded wires that contain a radio signal for easier positioning of the cars, etc. There is also the possibility of installing road-based sensors that communicate to auto-cars, allowing them to see around corners. This would radically empower the defensive-driving capability of auto-cars, and far beyond what a human could achieve.
Again, because we know where we’re going with this technology, it makes sense to study how best to accommodate the driverless revolution via the public-infrastructural response.
Although there are many important questions around how our cities could (or should) develop in response to driverless car technology, if we can loosely predict that the enclosed motorcycle is the future then the government could consider the following.
The idea is to condition existing roads so as to provide discrete super-elevation for autonomous 2-wheeled vehicles. The hump in the road (red part of the included diagram) would only be about 1 to 2 feet wide.
On the scale of things it would be a trivial cost and an easy thing to do. It would make autonomous vehicles safer, more efficient and significantly reduce tyre wear. Also it gives us the opportunity to smooth-out the roads for most traffic, further improving comfort.
The motorcycle would have to follow a relatively strict travel path on the road, but that’s easy enough with electronic control. However, slight rear-wheel steering might be necessary if super-elevation is used in tight corners.
-Further to improve smoothness and comfort, the bikes should be series-hybrids. This means make them electric, but include a diesel-generator for range. Care should be taken to isolate vibrations coming from the generator, and to this end an opposed-piston engine would be very effective as it’s almost perfectly balanced (vibrationless).
Local governments in New Zealand are infatuated with the belief that their cities should be high-density in form, and they in turn believe their cities should be forced to evolve in that way. Ignoring the fact that they are desperately wrong, the fact remains that full-automation transport technology is a radical game-changer on its own, no matter what your current planning philosophy might be. Local and central governments will need to rethink their ideas in relation to a full-automation transport world.
For example, if people can commute on non-congested roads at 10% of the total cost of today’s transport (not unrealistic), and do business in their car via the Cloud, how then would this affect the rational structure of a modern city form? Do we really need to suffocate land supply so as to force people to live closer together, when it’s just as or even more efficient to let them spread out? And when such beautiful locations to live in are so easily accessible, in terms of both travel time/pleasure and cost, does it then really make sense to actively deprive people of this option? And how will your economy fare by taking away people’s idealised lifestyles, while other economies do not? Will people even hang around?
Further still, if people can work from home yet easily access their work place for when they specifically need to, then how many new commercial buildings will we need to build? Maybe New Zealand would be better off just demolishing its dodgy earthquake-risk buildings and rolling-out the fiber-optics instead?
There is strong rumor that Google is already working to implement their autonomous technology to provide a delivery service. It’s obvious enough that a delivery service would be an ideal first-step application for driverless cars. A car that delivers goods may only need to be about, say, a 30th of the size of a normal car, so it won’t have the strict safety issues associated with bigger vehicles that transport people. And the operational costs of tiny autonomous cars will of course be trivial.
Micro-cars will give us the “physical internet”. The impact that micro-cars alone will have will be fascinating.
I think one of the most distinct effects that we will see from micro-cars is home-cooking being reduced to hobby status, because it will be soon be too easy (and cheap) to have a good meal delivered to you. With micro-cars the rationale exists to develop massive kitchen complexes that mass-produce varied meals, because the system allows for a single production-point to reach-out to a large consumer-base efficiently (and quickly). Also these kitchens can be efficiently supplied with fresh local food. Watch out for food production monopolies/cartels developing in the future.
The micro-cars also make it convenient for people to hire more than buy, for infrequently used items. And they can allow retail to come to you rather than the other way around. I predict that retail as we know it will be largely converted to a showcase industry – most things will be boughtandeliveredonline.
Autonomous transport allows for efficient outsourcing in production. So efficient, that it can give us a “go-anywhere” production-line, allowing the production process to be efficiently split amongst various factories. The advantage is better utilisation of capital and skills for smaller production runs. Conversely, full automation allows machinery to be transported efficiently to a site, also allowing for better utilisation of capital. Hiring an expensive machine is easier if it’s used twice as often.
The physical internet makes bypassing the middleman easy enough. Manufacturers will no doubt prefer to sell their products directly, as traditional retail is seen more as a parasitic cost.
Both the public and private sectors need to start thinking about driverless car technology, and how it might affect their operations. Driverless technology will penetrate society in ways far beyond what I have currently speculated over. It’s not here yet, but it’s close, inevitable, and the impact will be nothing less than profound.
The sooner we can know what we’re dealing with, the better we can manage (and exploit) its future impact.