By Maciamo Hay,
on 2 June 2014
Driverless autonomous vehicles will change transportation much more than you might expect
The first self-driving cars should hit the road by 2015. In a decade or two, a large part of the world's vehicles will be autonomous. What impact will that have on our lives and the way we perceive cars?
Google has been working on autonomous cars for several years, having logged over 1 million km (700,000 miles) on US roads in five different states between April 2012 and April 2014, without any incident. The company recently announced that it would build its own self-driving cars, rather than modifying vehicles built by other manufacturers. Two hundreds of these tiny two-seater prototypes are expected to start circulating in US streets in 2015.
What are the benefits of self-driving cars?
It has been reported that the Google car is already safer than human drivers as the vehicle's camera sees everything in the slightest details thanks to its 360 degree angle, and react within a fraction of a second to changes in its environment, something that no human driver could ever dream of achieving.
Besides, this computerized driver never gets sleepy, can't be distracted by noisy kids, ringing phones or road signs, and has no risk of ever getting drunk. 1.2 million people die on the road every year around the world. Self-driven cars could save those lives.
Greatly increased safety is in itself a compelling argument in favour of surrendering the driving wheel to an automation. But that's not all. Autonomous cars would also be able to adjust their speed according to GPS traffic data or even remote signals from other cars and traffic lights, which would enable them to drive optimally to reduce travel time and consumption (until the day all cars will be electric).
Ideally, once most cars are computerized, traffic lights should all communicate together and lights change in function of the incoming traffic in various directions. A fully automated traffic would run much more efficiently, saving everyone time and money.
In addition to accrued safety and speed, it would be much more relaxing to be chauffeured around rather than having to drive. It would reduce stress, eliminate noise pollution from honking, and allow people to read, talk on the phone, nap, think, day-dream or whatever else they'd rather do instead of concentrating on traffic. Autonomous cars have the ability to improve our quality of life.
Even better, driving licences wouldn't be required any more, and almost anyone who can't drive alone at present, be them teenagers, the very elderly or the disabled, could be taxied around in their own cars in all safety. That will bring about a true revolution in transportation. Parents would need to drive their 10-year old son or daughter to school, or to activities on Saturday, or to friends' houses. The elderly would couldn't drive would become mobile again, instead of relying on relatives or neighbours to drive them to the supermarket or to the post office. Automations bring increased freedom of movement to the younger and older generations while saving time for the working population.
There will be economic repercussions. Taxi, truck and other professional drivers will lose their jobs. But that may be a small price to pay for better road safety and greater convenience for everyone. Another benefit would be the disappearance of car insurance. People aren't liable anymore if a computer is doing the driving, and anyway accidents will become so rare, and probably so minor that it won't matter. Even in the event that a human drivers hits a self-driven car, with the 360 degree camera running all the time, it would be easy to determine exactly the cause of the accident without possible contention.
When will autonomous car go mainstream?
Google hasn't been the only company working on self-driven cars. Tesla, Nissan, Toyota, Volvo, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Daimler and Ford and General Motors, among others, have all being working on projects of their own. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, already the leader in the high-end electric car market, expects to release its first fully autonomous cars around 2016. Nissan's CEO, Carlos Ghosn, announced that they will sell not one self-driven car but a line of cars at latest by 2020. Volvo's lead engineer, Erik Coelingh, doesn't see the first commercial autonomous cars before 2024.
Semi-autonomous cars with adaptive cruise control, automatic steering, automatic braking, lane-keeping system, collision avoidance system, and automatic parking have all entered the market since the early 2000's.
Some people may not feel comfortable knowing that their life is 'in the hands' of a computer and may wish to keep the steering wheel just in case they want to switch off the autonomous mode. Over time, as people notice just how convenient and safe it is to be driven around, human driving will become increasingly rare, until the presence of the wheel isn't needed anymore. Google's prototype car already lacks the wheel, although it may be because this kind of vehicle is geared towards people who do not have a driving licence and would be the first to see benefits in using an autonomous car. The small size of the prototype makes it more affordable for the targeted consumers: the teenagers and the elderly.
Like other life-facilitating technologies (e.g. smartphones), autonomous cars could experience a sudden craze and replace human-driven cars within 5 to 10 years after being made available to consumers at a reasonable price. The transition may start in the early 2020's, at least in developed countries. Differences in legislations between countries could lead to gaps of years or even decades in the adoption of the new technology. More than consumers, governments will be the determining factor in how quickly self-driving cars can become mainstream.
Some might doubt that autonomous cars will take over the market within 10-15 years of their introduction. After all, hybrid cars were launched over 15 years ago (even if only the Toyota Prius at first) and still represent only 10% of new sales in the US, and 25% in Japan, which has the world's highest percentage. The reason why hybrid cars haven't been selling very well yet is that they are too expensive. Even though they consume less fuel, for many years it was very hard to amortize due to the difference of initial investment. The initial enthusiasts were often environmentalists.
In contrast, the autonomous car brings a significant direct benefits to consumers in the form of increased safety and convenience, so that people will want them even if they are a bit more expensive, just as happened with smartphones. As always price will be the determinant factor for the speed of adoption, and sales will follow an exponential curve as manufacturing costs drop progressively.
Once a majority of cars in a city or country are autonomous, governments could and perhaps should start ban human-driven cars as they would become a public safety concern. Not only are human drivers much more likely to cause accidents, but they also wouldn't be able to interact automatically with GPS and other wireless signals which will help the traffic to auto-regulate.
Humans drivers can cause all kinds of disturbances like parking in the middle of two parking spots, parking behind someone's garage, double park on a busy street and cause traffic jams, and so on.
How will our perception of cars change?
The age of automobiles really started around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It didn't take long before the first sports car was developed, the Vauxhall Prince Henry in 1910. Actually even before sports cars existed, races were already held between early prototypes. The first organized contest was held on 28 April 1887 in Paris. In the second half of the 20th century motor racing grew into a big business, regularly watched on TV by hundreds of millions of spectators worldwide. It is not surprising therefore that cars have a strong association with racing and speed.
Purchasing a shiny sports car is one of the most common ways of displaying one's wealth, even if one doesn't drive well. Wealth being concentrated in large cities, more sports car are found in congested cities than in the countryside. Many well-off individuals will buy a Porsche or a Ferrari just to drive to work, and hardly ever get a chance to use the power of their engine. I have even seen housewives picking up kids at school in a Lotus or a Porsche Cayenne while driving more slowly than everyone else. Mind you, sports cars aren't the most comfortable either. Some are so low it's difficult to get into them. Car racing, maybe even more than any other sport competitions, has acquired a prestige so high that it has rubbed off on the cars themselves. The result has been for many people that having a fast car from a famous maker is prestigious, even if it isn't used for racing a all. Like diamonds, the prestige is in the price, not the utility.
Will that all change when we won't be driving our cars anymore ? Now at least people can pretend that they can drive fast behind a 500 hp engine, even if they hardly ever go much faster than other cars. But once you remove the steering wheel and are driven by a computer designed never to exceed the speed limit, what's the point ? In a market where all cars must be automated by law, sports cars might become obsolete, or at least restricted to racing circuits where they will still be allowed to drive, like Formula Ones.
How will transportation evolve?
Cars will become much more utilitarian than before, but could also turn into social places, where people can chat and have a drink. They will also be places to read, play and relax. Liquid crystal controllers like those developed by Gauzy could let passengers control the level of transparency of windows, turning the whole car into darkness with the flip of a switch or finger when one wants to have a nap on a long road trip.
Some people's egos will still need fulfilling. Instead of bigger engines, the money will be spent on bigger, more luxurious cars. It is likely that the seating arrangement will be altered to a more limousine style, since there is no reason to be staring in front of the car anymore. Or there could be wide reclining seats that can be converted into beds for napping, like in an airplane in first class. Panoramic sunroofs will become more common as people will have the leisure to look at the sky and a buildings around them.
Autonomous cars can be summoned with a click on a smartphone. This makes car-sharing much easier. Does your mother who lives two miles away want to borrow your car while you are working ? Just send it to her from your phone. Once she has finished the car will be able to return to your location all by itself. Any car could also be rented to other people with services like Uber. This would considerably reduce the total number of cars and free up parking space.
Google's engineers also like to think that in a near future cars will stop being possessions and become services instead. Publicly available robocars would replace taxis and buses and convey people efficiently to their destination, picking up new passengers near where they left the last ones off, and for a fraction of the cost of owning a car. That may work for a large part of the population, but there will surely be people who like to own their own car, if only for the prestige of having a luxury car for their own private use.