Are driverless cars a game changer?

A common observation by many historians I’ve read goes like this: “they failed to understand just how important such-and-such was going to be in the future”. In many cases, “such-and-such” is a decisive technology that went unrecognized until it ended up completely changing the game.

Well, I think one technology that’s being grossly under-estimated today is Driverless Cars (DCs). If they could deliver fully on their promise, they’d have an enormous impact and bring a triple bottom line improvement to our cities – more efficient, more equitable and better for the environment.

There’s plenty of commentary around on driverless cars and I wrote at length on their potential as recently as May 31, in Are driverless cars coming?  In that piece, I discussed the current state of the technology and some of the formidable technical, social and legal obstacles to a driverless car fleet.

However as we know from the history of electricity, public sanitation, the car, the computer, inoculation, the pill and many other innovations, it’s very hard to deny an irresistible idea. Given enough time – say the 30 year horizon typical of current planning strategies – it’s possible the sheer weight of benefits DCs promise our cities will provide the motive force to overcome these obstacles.

The key potential benefits are:

  • Expansion in the effective capacity of the road system – at least double and perhaps eight times as much, with consequent savings in infrastructure provision
  • Time savings from faster journeys – technology can manage vehicle interactions and speeds more efficiently than human drivers (although there might be a trade-off with capacity here)
  • Almost complete elimination of serious injuries and fatalities associated with accidents
  • More productive use of in-vehicle journey time compared to conventional cars
  • Greater mobility for those who cannot drive e.g. the unlicensed, disabled, drunk

These are potentially enormous private and social benefits. In addition, the warrant for owning a private vehicle would be greatly reduced in a world of DCs. If a total or substantial shift to DC-sharing were achieved, the size of the urban car fleet would be reduced by an order of magnitude. There would be many benefits:

  • Lower environmental impact because many fewer vehicles would need to be manufactured
  • Less public and private space devoted to parking – this could greatly enhance the quality of public spaces and even residential streetscapes
  • Better matching of vehicle type to need, resulting in lower resource and environmental costs e.g. many DCs could be single seaters
  • Lower cost of travel due to eliminating need for vehicle ownership and removing the “status” component
  • Reduced noise, pollution, emissions and energy consumption by virtue of having a more efficient “standard” set of vehicles
  • The opportunity to rationalise the way travel is paid for by introducing a new pricing ‘paradigm’ – all standing and variable costs, including externalities, could be incorporated in a distance-related tariff (this isn’t intrinsic to DCs, but the changeover to a new paradigm provides the opportunity)

There are other potential strategic benefits too. Driverless cars could greatly reduce (though not eliminate) the need for public transport. This would offer a number of potential advantages:

  • Faster, safer and more private travel for those who currently use public transport – many travellers would enjoy very significant time savings
  • A higher proportion of the total cost of providing transport in the city could be borne directly by DC users rather than, as at present, by taxpayers

DCs aren’t just a replacement for the car, they’re a potential game-changer for the entire urban transport task. Read the rest of this entry »


Are driverless cars coming?

This alarm clock would be a real incentive to get out of bed (albeit shredding notes is illegal). From Mashable - h/t Alex Tabarrok

There are nine completely driverless train systems/lines operating in Europe, eight in Asia and six elsewhere. There are a further nineteen in Europe with a “standby driver” or, like London’s Docklands Light Railway, with a “Passenger Service Agent” present on the train, just in case something goes wrong.

So Google’s claim that its seven driverless test cars have driven 1,000 miles on roads without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control sounds plausible. The company is reported by the New York Times as saying one car drove itself down Lombard Street, one of the steepest and curviest streets in San Francisco. 

According to the paper, Google’s engineers say “robot drivers” are better because they:

React faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated……They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together.

Although they are some years away yet, the claimed potential benefits of this new technology are enormous. If proven, it should allow travellers to do other things while driving, making time spent travelling much more productive. On roads where conventional vehicles have been superseded, road capacity should at least double, although according to some observers an eight-fold increase can easily be achieved. Speeds should increase while simultaneously reducing road accidents — one of the largest negative externalities associated with roads — through keeping drunk drivers away from the wheel and minimising simple driver error. If accidents are less likely, vehicles can be made lighter and therefore use less fuel.

If it can be implemented without the need for a “standby driver”, there is scope to lower taxi and freight costs substantially. In the latter case this should help make smaller trucks viable, reducing the need for very large trucks within urban areas. However the natural extension of eliminating the need for drivers is to remove the requirement to own cars altogether. If all the functionality of a private car is still possible – like on-demand availability, privacy, point-to-point travel – then the warrant for owning a dedicated vehicle is greatly reduced.

Huge benefits would follow if sharing could be made to work because rather than being parked for 98% of the day, vehicles could be out earning their keep 24/7. The size of the city’s car fleet would be greatly reduced and the cars themselves could be much smaller and lighter – for example, a majority could be single seaters to reflect demand patterns. In time, it’s likely the cost of travel attributable to vehicle ownership and fuel costs would fall significantly as economies of scale were achieved. People on lower incomes or unable to drive would get a big improvement in mobility. Travellers would ‘pay per kilometre’, making them more sensitive to travel costs.  Read the rest of this entry »