One glance at our clogged “freeways” is all one needs in order to see the self-evident waste (of time, resources) of how we currently approach the transport of people and things.
In a series of articles in 2012, Richard Gilbert, a transportation and energy consultant wrote about the transformative potential of driverless cars, what he termed autonomous taxicabs or ATs. He wrote
With widespread use of driverless cars – mostly as ATs – there could be more vehicles on the road because ATs will substitute for most, and perhaps eventually all, private automobile use as well as much use of buses and other conventional transit. Moreover, ATs will serve users who cannot drive or use transit, including young people and the elderly.
Driverless cars will be smaller and lighter on average because they will need fewer safety features and driver controls and because the capacity of particular ATs will likely be matched to the trip requirements. As well as using less energy for these reasons, they will be operated in such a way as to use less energy. This will happen through attainment of more even speeds as a result of better traffic management and vehicle operation.
A network of ATs could also more efficiently use all-battery vehicles. Gilbert observes:
The main challenge in using a battery electric vehicle is accommodating its short-range. A fleet operator could deploy enough electric vehicles to ensure that a sufficient number to meet demand is always available even though many may be unavailable because their batteries are being charged. An AT with a battery approaching depletion would automatically seek a charging station between hires. Connection, charging, and disconnection would also be automatic. Fleet operators may choose to invest in fast-charging stations and fewer vehicles, or vice versa, according to circumstances. Individual owners could not make that trade-off.
Fleet operators could achieve what would in effect be very fast charging through battery exchange, which could also be achieved automatically. As well as very fast charging, batteries for battery exchange could be charged during off-peak periods, reducing fuel costs.
Dan Ovsey in his article on driverless cars wrote recently about a new driverless car project by Volvo:
Gothenburg is a charming university town on the southwestern edge of Sweden’s North Sea coast. It’s also the Scandinavian country’s second-largest city with a population of more than 500,000 and a robust network of public transit options that allow the city’s residents to navigate what the municipality estimates to be, on average, a 30-minute commute to schools and workplaces.
But by 2017, Gothenburg’s predominantly 19th Century landscape will have a very modern addition — namely the introduction of 100 self-driving cars made by Sweden’s revered safety-oriented automaker Volvo.
Dubbed the Drive Me project, the initiative — jointly funded by Volvo and the Swedish Transport Administration — was announced in December 2013 with an aim to allocate 50 kilometers of public roadways to the pilot project with the overarching goal of reducing traffic fatalities in the Nordic city.
While the concept of cars driving themselves using sensory technology, sophisticated algorithms and self-guided, wireless communication has generated a flurry of buzz in the tech and automotive communities, many observers are beginning to look past the vehicles’ cool factor with the realization that growing adoption of driverless vehicles will have not only a profound impact on driver safety and accident rates, but on everything from the greater economy, energy use, the real estate market, urban planning, national productivity levels, and household dynamics.
Marcus Rothoff, autonomous driving program director for Volvo in Sweden, foresees a time when the precision and finesse of driverless vehicles will drastically change Gothenburg’s landscape by allowing for narrower lanes to be added to existing roadways, tunnels and bridges. Such changes are only the tip of the iceberg, and are likely to influence how the municipality spends its infrastructure dollars.
“We could spend money much more efficiently and that’s why we have the Swedish Traffic Administration involved in the project because they see the possibility of spending money much more efficiently.”
And it goes far beyond roadways and bridges. Mr. Rothoff envisions a time when driverless cars drop off individuals at their destinations in the city and drive themselves away to the city’s periphery where they await being wirelessly called back. Such a scenario would free up valuable urban space being occupied by parking structures.
Robert Tremblay, research director at the Insurance Bureau of Canada, is quoted in describing the introduction of driverless cars as a “sea change” for society.
“There’s a whole host of issues that haven’t been explored, like who would benefit from having the data of millions of people’s driving patterns. That data, on an aggregate level, has lots of value. Who does that belong to? How is your privacy being protected? It’s quite mind-boggling when you start to consider the details of what can arise from this.”
He notes insurance companies haven’t quite begun discussing how they might be affected by the emergence of autonomous-vehicle technology, a trend Mr. Mui finds worrisome. “Insurance companies make money on their premiums, and over time they’ll be fighting over a smaller pool,” says Mr. Mui. “That will have a massive impact from a business-model standpoint, but it will also have an impact on hundreds of thousands of jobs for people sitting in claims centres, answering phones.”
The employment impact of the emerging technology goes far beyond taxis and insurance call centres. It has the potential to change the very nature of jobs in everything from transportation and logistics and public transit to auto body repair, car sales and service and crossing guards. It could reduce or eliminate the need for traffic enforcement, freeing up police personnel to tend to less mundane matters.
A video by Volvo on the Gothenburg Drive Me project: http://youtu.be/3PRzHqeBorA