With the rising cost of petrol, high influx of Traffic and high cost of maintenance for vehicles, one would think that the environmentalist approach of owning less cars would be attractive. Well guess again. maybe not for long. The industry is inching towards self-driving cars, maybe it’s time to consider trading in the family wagon and simply hail a lift?
The argument is seductively simple. We can’t do without cars. No transport alternative offers the same flexibility, personalized comfort and sense of control. But automobiles are spectacularly inefficient in terms of environmental and personal cost. Cars depreciate rapidly, are left idle most of their life-time, eat through fuel while seats are often left empty and they demand no end of real-estate to be parked on.
Autonomous taxis would be more expensive than a normal car, but with no driver the running costs would be substantially lower. Operators would therefore be likely to run large fleets and would keep their cars on the road for as long as possible – meaning that in areas of high population a vehicle would never be too far away.
These vehicles would be different. Just as electric cars have increased interior space by doing away with the engine, dispensing with the steering wheel, gear stick and other controls would free up room for extra people and their belongings.
But it’s all not just too good to be true, there are substantial limitations on autonomous vehicles. Cars are reliant on processing, in advance, extensively mapped environments – making any spontaneous deviations from a route difficult. Snow, heavy rain or bright light can cause havoc with sensors, and “reading” visual symbols such as a police officer signalling would be beyond most current processors
Add to this, the cyber-security risks inherent in all connected vehicles and it becomes plain just how much work developers have to do.
Even if these challenges can be overcome in any realistic time-frame the usual drawback of car-sharing services would still apply to autonomous vehicles. Being able to hail a taxi when you want it, never mind in the form one desires it, requires a huge fleet to be operating in densely populated area. We’d also need advanced GPS mapping and tracking systems and large out-of-town charging bays – because although more autonomous taxis would mean less parking needed overall, the fleet as a whole would likely seek cheaper overnight charging at a similar time.
Yet what was once science fiction has a tendency to move into the mainstream. Carmakers such as BMW and Tesla have been acquiring driverless technology, as have tech giants Google and Apple – not to mention the car-and-driver-for-hire firm Uber. Indeed one doesn’t need to be an early adopter to see driver assistance and connected technologies becoming commonplace. Crossing the hurdle to fully autonomous vehicles will be a major challenge, but once it has been credibly achieved (and credibility is everything), a whole new market may be awaiting the pioneers.
Ultimately this is the point. From San Francisco to Moscow, from Seoul to mighty Coventry (where the UK’s largest driverless car test is taking place), there is a digital infrastructure being laid down and growing expectations among the younger generation of ever more connectivity. Autonomous taxis may not be appropriate everywhere or for everyone, but they do have the potential to capture a large slice of interest in urban centres and, because the capital costs are borne by the transport operators not individuals, there is lots of potential for the business models to spread quickly.
By 2030 our cities, not to mention our cars, may start looking very different. It might be worth thinking about grassing over your driveway.
Read more at weforum.org