What is an Autonomous Car?
Today’s cars can do many things on their own. They take over in stop-and-go traffic, park automatically and they look over shoulder when you want to change the lane. These driver assistant systems are becoming more sophisticated with every generation. But still, a driver is responsible to monitor the car. He needs to take over when the assistance systems can’t handle a situation.
In a fully autonomous car, the driver does not have to do this any more. He can relax, take the hands off the wheel and the eyes off the street. This frees him to do other things during the ride that are not allowed today, like talking on the phone, watching movies or working. As he is not responsible any longer, he does not even need a driver’s license. Thus even children could take autonomous cars on their own, or you can finally drink-and-drive.
To build such a car, many breakthroughs in several technical fields are necessary. But the recent advancements especially in artificial intelligence suggest that it might be possible to create an autonomous vehicle that does not need supervision by a driver any more. If this happens, what will be the consequences?
Driverless cars will make commuting more attractive. After all, you don’t have to steer the car yourself. You will be less tired when you arrive. You can work in the car or take part in telephone conferences. The time spent commuting will become work time.
This raises the incentive to go to work by car instead of public transportation. People might even take up longer commutes. These factors will lead to even more cars on the streets that are already jammed today. So you will not get to work faster. But at least you can use this time productively.
An autonomous vehicle can find a parking space all by itself. You don’t have to care where it is parked. As soon as you need it, you call it to your current position and it picks you up.
While you are at work, it can even run some errands for you. It could drive to the supermarket, where the employees put your ordered groceries into the trunk. It could fetch your mail from the post office. In short, it might become your own mobile storage box.
A group of autonomous vehicles can be parked in a much denser space. Especially for long time parking, the cars don’t need to have the space to leave the parking lot. So a group of vehicles could stand densily packed, without space in between. Whenever a car owner returns, the other cars could make space for the car to leave. This parking lot could be orchestrated by the system of the airport parking operator in a way that the first car that needs to leave is positioned closest to the exit.
The concept of a taxi does not change with a driverless car. It is just that you don’t need to have a driver any more. This is bad news for taxi drivers. The customers don’t have to pay the driver anymore. An autonomous vehicle will have higher fixed costs than a taxi with a driver, but less variable costs. Thus it should lead to less costs for a taxi ride, increasing the incentive to use a taxi instead of your own car.
A computer with wheels will never get tired. It is always vigilant. It cannot become angry, and it does not brag. In this regard, the driverless vehicle is better than a human, and it is very likely that it will make much fewer errors. So we can expect the number of accidents to decrease. But can it go to zero?
Autonomous cars are becoming better in understanding their surroundings every day. But still the human brain is superior in detecting patterns and interpreting the environment. So crashes like the one where the autopilot of a car did not notice the trailer of a truck might still happen. And most tests of autonomous vehicles today happen in sunny California or Nevada on streets in pretty good condition. But will the artificial intelligence cope equally well with foggy weather like in England, or with the potholes in streets in the developing countries? There are still some challenges ahead.
And there is another threat. The autonomous cars will be connected. With the servers of the manufacturer. With other cars. With its owners’ mobile devices, maybe even their smart homes. There is a multitude of interfaces, which makes it hard to protect them against hacking. Because a computer drives the car, everybody who controls the computer can control the car and cause a crash if he wants to. So protecting cars against hacker attacks needs to be first priority of the car manufacturers, which will become as vital as crash safety.
In the end, these are engineering challenges that will likely be overcome. And even if the algorithms in a car might never be perfect, maybe not as good as the human brain, we still can expect the number of crashes to go down considerably.
Many futurists say that with a self driving vehicle, you don’t need to own a car for yourself. You just call a car whenever you need it. Mobility as a service is the keyword. The private car will be a relict of the past.
But is this really true? I think, people like to have their own car; a car they don’t have to share with others. It is their own private space, their home away from home. They decorate it and leave their personal belongings in the car.
Even today, many people choose to have their own car even though they don’t need it. Especially in cities, the own car is a luxury, as parking space is becoming more and more expensive. And on the other hand, public transportation networks would support life without a car. But many people still want to have one. It is a status symbol. The design and the color of a car is an expression of its owner’s personality. It is an emotional thing, a very important and personal part of peoples’ lifes. They won’t give it away as long as they can afford it.
It would also not be possible to replace all private cars with a fleet of driverless taxis. People need to go to work all roughly at about the same time and also return at the same time. This is what causes the daily rush hours in the morning and in the evening. This will not change with self-driving cars. Someone has to provide capacity for this peek demand, most of which will be unused for the rest of the day. This is not very profitable for any company to do. So especially when you need to commute to work, you still need to have your own car as there just will not be enough capacity to transport everybody at the same time.
But if you need a car only rarely, then a driverless taxi might be a good alternative to your own car. A ride in a taxi without a driver should be more affordable than today, as no driver needs to be paid. So you might choose to use it more often than today.
Long Distance Travel
Travelling longer distances will change with the autonomous car. Without steering, a trip of several hours or even a day might become quite enjoyable. You can chat with your family, watch a movie or eat. When you need a break, you ask your car to stop at the next rest stop.
This will be a threat to other modes of transporation, such as railways. Currently, one of the advantages of railways is that you arrive more relaxed (if you don’t have to cope with too many delays). This advantage will be gone. With an autonomous vehicle, you don’t have to change trains. You also have a car available at your destination.
How many people switch from rail to road depends on how expensive an autonomous car is and if the rails can undercut this price.
Railways have an advantage if you are travelling between large cities, especially if they are connected with high speed lines. In this case, the transit time by rail will be very competetive with the car, as high speed trains can go up to 350km/h. Only very powerful cars can even reach this speed, but they cannot hold it for long as they run out of fuel.
So railways will not be a thing of the past, but they might have to position themselves better to compete against autonomous vehicles.
In intercontinental travel, a car is obviously no threat to the airplane. But on short to medium distances, it might be more comfortable to take a car than a plane. Maybe the car is slower, but it saves you all the time to get to the airport, check in, wait for the plane to start and afterwards to collect your luggage. And you can carry in your car whatever you want and you don’t have to buy overpriced water and snacks.
Autonomous vehicles could be a boon for the population of urban areas, especially those who don’t have a driver’s license. An autonomous taxi cab would be more affordable than a normal taxi. This would allow these groups to make trips to bigger towns or to see a doctor more often and without the help of friends or families.
In areas or in times of day of low demand, regular bus service that runs on a fixed schedule are often not profitable. These could be replaced by dial-a-ride taxis that pick up several passengers at their homes along the route and drive them to their destination.
Will the streets of the future be less crowded than today? Can autonomous vehicles drive in convoys, each using the slipstream of the car ahead, saving both energy and space on the street? Will we even be able to convert some streets into public spaces, as cars don’t need them any more?
I doubt that all of this will happen to this extent. Driving in a convoy is a very difficult task. It needs very close cooperation and communication between all cars. It will be very hard to develop a system that is supported by all car manufacturers and allows their cars to communicate with each other. It is also a big safety risk. What happens if any of the cars has a sudden breakdown or a flat tire? As there is no safety margin between the cars, all cars following it would crash. This risk will potentially prevent the use of car convoys alltogether.
Some people also say that drivers will choose smaller cars than. This would save space on the streets and in the parking lots. But why would people do this? They choose big cars like SUVs for the status, the space and the perceived safety. Why would all of this suddenly change with self-driving cars?
And for the number of cars on the street: It might even increase, as stated in the section about commuting. The driverless car is an incentive to commute by car, so more cars will be on the streets. When not in use, these cars will have to park somewhere. They can find the parking space themselves, as stated in the section about parking. But this will create further traffic of autonomous cars trying to find a parking lot.
The driverless car also has its upsides, too. It drives more rationally than a human driver. It will always keep the correct distance to the other cars, not too close, not too far behind. It might refrain from changing lanes too often. It will have no delays on traffic lights. These factors will likely increase the throughput of the streets, counterbalancing the increase in traffic to some extent.
As stated in the section about streets, autonomous vehicles will not free up space on our streets. They might even lead to more congestion. So public transporation in the cities will still be important. As cities grow, they will have to rely even more on subways, trams and busses.
In other words, when the population densitiy increases, the space efficiency of the transporation system needs to increase, too. And the highest capacity per area is provided by public transportation. It is not as comfortable for the passengers, as they have to stand very densily packed, but there is no way around it. If all public transportation users would suddenly switch to autonomous cars, the streets would collapse. There is just not enough space.
This means cities will have to extend their public transporation systems as they grow while on the other hand trying to reduce road traffic. This is what big cities like London do with efforts like the Congestion Charge, and what they need to continue to do in the future.
Autonomous cars will improve our lives in many ways. They will make long commutes more bearable, maybe even enjoyable or productive. They will improve life in rural regions. They will make our roads safer.
But the self driving car is no panacea for our traffic problems. Because most people travel at the same time, they cannot all share the same car. And it is also not clear if they wanted to do it in the first place. So a private car will not be gone.
The streets will still be crowded. As commuting becomes more relaxed, the incentive to take a car is even greater. Maybe there will be even more cars on our streets as before. And they still need to park somewhere.
Because space will still be rare in cities, its inhabitants need to compete for it. People will have to pay to use the street. So public transportation will still be needed. It is unbeaten in terms of capacity. And this is what the cities of tomorrow need even more than today.
With the autonomous car, our streets will look in many ways like today. But this future is still something to look forward to, as it brings safer and more relaxed travelling. And this is, after all, what we all want.
Please note that this article is based on my own research and conclusions.