Google, that has been working on its self-driving cars for several years, have finally reached a point where they can test with real users. They recorded a video when Steve Mahan takes the first spin with his new autonomous car. Steve has lost more than 95% of his vision in both eyes, making him well beyond the point where he can drive himself.
While the self-driving car certainly means a lot for Mr Mahan as a private person, it can make an even bigger difference for society as a whole. But as with almost any new and radically different technologies most people are not aware of the potential until the point comes where it has already implemented itself and suddenly “is here”.
I am big fan of autonomous cars because I believe that they are badly needed to solve a host of problems, environmental, safety and city congestion problems. I discussed this with friend and former colleague Jonas Åkerman of over a couple of beers the other day and he was not as optimistic about the benefits of autonomous cars as I am.
“These vehicles may be self-driving today but that is not how it should be. Its like comparing a lap-top computer without internet, with one that has. They both are exactly the same, yet they differ vastly in their functionality. The autonomous car should really be called something else, like collaborative car for example”
Jonas is a very clever and well renowned traffic- and transportation researcher at KTH Environment Strategies Dept. I took his skepticism seriously and after coming home that night I realized that because we call it autonomous or self-driving we are missing the very point with them, which is their networking capabilities. These vehicles may be self-driving today but that is not how it should be. Its like comparing a lap-top computer without internet, with one that has. They both are exactly the same, yet they differ vastly in their functionality. The autonomous car should really be called something else, like collaborative car for example, but for now lets stick with autonomous.
Autonomous vehicles are, as I see it, the missing link to a perfected public transportation system where individually owned vehicles will be redundant, and this is how I picture it.
“privately owned autonomous cars is just ridiculous and should not even be considered.”
Autonomous vehicles are steered by computers, and connecting them to the cloud is the key to unlock their potential. In the cloud all experiences and incidents that happens to a vehicle is stored, compared and shared back to the moving vehicles in real time. This information gathering will make it possible for all autonomous vehicles to be orchestrated in unison while each unit carries out its own unique task in a time- and space effective way. It will have to be an intelligent system where all vehicles upload info on what they have learned so that the information can be shared back to all vehicles.
An obvious possibility of such a system is to make travel costs completely transparent. A huge problem with the ordinary cars of today is that we have no system to make them pay for the space they use and the pollution they cause. In Stockholm we have a toll fee to enter the city limits but even thought its automatic it is a very crude system that is lacking all the necessary details. A person that for example, park 100 meters inside of the toll and use the subway to get around in town will pay the same fee as a person that roams around with the car all over the city for hours, stopping here and there, wearing asphalt and emitting exhausts. This is of course discriminating towards the person who park the car to use the subway instead and an example of how crude todays toll system is. What we should do instead is make the user pay exactly for what he or she is using in terms of common resources in the city such as exact contribution to congestion, parking space and environmental costs in the form of particles in the air. All these costs are subsidized by the today because the systems to measure the value of them aren’t sophisticated enough. The computerized and connectedness of an autonomous car transit system changes this and will make the cost of using a car in the city transparent to the user. This will give politicians all the necessary knobs and dials to tweak city transport systems as effective as possible but just the economic transparency in it self will be a huge catalyst to change peoples behavior in favor of mass transit since we will know before hand exactly what the cost for a given journey through the city will be and gives as the opportunity to choose.
Another possibility of a collaborative autonomous car is that it can be integrated in the public transportation system of buses and rail bound traffic. In fact, this is the only way it should be – privately owned autonomous cars is just ridiculous and should not even be considered. With travel planning systems, such as the ones we already have in cities like Stockholm, London and elsewhere, where you basically just tap in a street address as the destination on your smart phone and the system calculates different alternative routes for the user to choose from, it is easy to add an autonomous car for any distance that is considered longer than walking distance.
“Surely a shift such as this would make lot of households abandon their private car.”
In suburbs where frequent bus traffic is not economical and the public transport grid is more dispersed this will be a huge benefit for those who live there. In effect this means that the autonomous car will function as todays car-pooles, with the main difference that you do not have to join the car pool in order to use it since it is part of the public transport system. Say you are in your home in Rotebro outside of Stockholm and want to visit to your mother who lives 12 km from the railway station in Nynäshamn on the other side of town. You just tap in on your mobile phone your destination and the system will then call an autonomous that drives up to your drive way and takes you to the train station in Rotebro (2km). From there you go by commuter train to Nynäshamn, change to a bus that takes you to a bus stop 4 km away from your mother. When you arrive at the bus stop, an autonomous vehicle arrives at the same moment to take you the last bit to your mothers house. Today such a journey would have been done by car the whole way, or you would have had to walk the 2 kilometers in Rotebro and perhaps the mother would have come to pick you up at the bus station, unless you walked the last 4 km. My personal guess is that journeys such as this has a steep comfort curve before anyone even attempts it today and that gives many a good reason to own a car. Connected autonomous cars would defiantly flattening that comfort curve to a level close to that of an ordinary car. Surely a shift such as this would make lot of households abandon their private car.
Problems then. Well, I can see two. First: What if this system is used in such a way that people take the autonomous every where and skip mass transit? The answer to that must be that if such a thing would happen the price on taking the autonomous is probably too low. Adding the autonomous to a journey should of course, either reflect the cost properly or if it is included in a monthly plan, be restricted to certain distances etc.
Second problem I see is that a more efficient and far reaching public transport system will bring hordes of new users to it and many more travels will be made – and over larger distances. This could overload any of todays public transport system which are designed as the poor mans compliment to the private car, and is a more serious problem. There is only one way to solve it. Well maybe not just one, but one main way to solve it: To increase the capacities of rail bound mass transit. If we seriously count on a breakthrough for the autonomous, which we should, then city- and traffic planners must start today by funneling funds from construction of new roads to construction of more rail bound traffic to increase their capacity. This by the way, should be done anyway. The car-society as we know it, has to go.
As an answer to the skeptics who do not see autonomous cars in the future other than as a gimmick on the fringes because, and these are the two main arguments against such a shift that I have picked up so far, is 1) people will never accept them, and 2) they are not possible to integrate with ordinary cars.
The first argument I would say is based on a lack of understanding in the nature of the humans as predominantly reactive. The resistance to letting one self be taken somewhere in an automatic vehicle will soon be overcome by pure curiosity once they are here and the technology proven – which it already is by the way. The second goes by it self – autonomous cars already drive in traffic. So the argument is obsolete. I.e. There are few if any stumbling blocks on the way to the autonomous vehicle. It will come, be sure of that.
“The last and maybe the most important and revolutionary change will be to see car producers become fleet-owners”
Last in this long post I would like to invite you to put on your future-binoculars and follow me on a small journey to try and see a few things that hopefully, maybe, lie ahead of us.
See intersections with traffic-lights only being used when pedestrians need to stop traffic. Intersections where cars communicate in real time and gives each other a time slot before they enter the intersection in which they will pass without having to stop, like a four-way totally organized zip-lock mechanism. Like in the video clip below. Personally I might even like it, but my mom would probably be scared to her jitters to go through such an intersection. I post it to give some feeling for the possibilities.
See autonomus vehicles book parking space by themselves ahead of arrival.
See autonomus vehicles ride almost bumper to bumper along the highway and in cities.
See autonomous trucks travel non-stop between cities, stopping only to recharge and load/unload goods. See them dock at automatic reloading stations to reload their cargo to trains and autonomous mini delivery vans.
See people abandon private car ownership in favor of highly efficient, cheaper, hazzle-free and much more convenient autonomous vehicle services that are almost instantly available anywhere there is road access.
See people having quality time with their toddlers while commuting, see people phone safely, work safely and talk safely while commuting.
See autonomous vehicles become part of public transport, connecting places that today are outside or on the fringes of the public transportation systems. Areas too sparsely populated for a public transportation system that rely on humans to be operated, leaving people living there today with just two options: Spending huge amounts of time on transport, or to buy a car. With autonomous cars as part of public transport, every place with road access will be made possible to reach.
The last and maybe the most important and revolutionary change will be to see car producers become fleet-owners, transform the automobile from being a consumption item with built in obsolescence, into a durable, fully serviceable, totally re-usable service providing robot that is treated as a valuable long term investment where cradle-to-cradle design is the norm. Such a change will dissolve the old paradigm where a producer manufactures for a consumer. With the fusing of the producer and the consumer into one, there will be no need for commercials, no need for yearly model changes etc. There will only be a need to perfect the service that the hardware deliver. If this seem unimportant to you i will have to tell you that this is perhaps the most important aspect of the autonomous car. Because only then we can make the absurd material flows of todays car-society become a trickle of what they are today. And we have to.
Learn more about autonomous vehicles:
WIRED 01 2012 Autonomous Cars
WIRED 02 2012 Autonomous Vehicles Q&A
NY Times 02 2012 Googles Autonomous Vehicles Draw Skepticism..