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Driving towards a driverless commute

By ST_Opinion on 04 Sep 2013

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It is the 15th of June 2030, and for Sam and Sue of Ann Arbor, Michigan, it is going to be a busy day. Their daughter Sophia has a 9:00am karate match. At noon, her older sister Sally's high school graduation will begin. And, by 3:00pm, the house must be ready for Sally's graduation party.

At 8:40am, Sam uses a smartphone app to order a ride from Maghicle, Ann Arbor's mobility service, which uses self-driving robotic vehicles. Within minutes, Sam, Sue, and Sophia are headed for the karate club. En route, Sophia studies videos of her opponent's past matches, while Sue catches up on e-mail and Sam orders appetisers and flowers for the party. They arrive at the club on time, and the robot proceeds to pick up someone else nearby.

Sally, who must arrive at school by 10:30am, has already ordered a Maghicle ride. When she boards at 10:15am, she receives a text message from her best friend Amanda, who wants to ride with her. Sally enters Amanda's address in the Maghicle app, and the robot chooses the best route.

At 11:30am, as a victorious Sophia trades her karate uniform for something better suited for her sister's graduation, Sam receives a text message confirming that a small temperature-controlled pod has delivered the appetisers for Sally's party in the secure, refrigerated drop-box at the house.

When Sophia is ready, the family orders another Maghicle ride, this time to Sally's school. They take their seats and, as Sam waves to Sally sitting with her classmates, he is struck by how quickly 17 years have passed.

In 2013, Sam's day would have been far more difficult, stressful, and expensive. He would have wasted far too much time in his petrol guzzling Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), stuck in traffic jams or searching for parking. Now, because he does not need to own a car, he spends far less on transportation and has more time to do as he pleases. With services like Maghicle enabling people to get around safely, affordably, conveniently and sustainably, Sam does not have to worry about his family getting into car accidents, as his parents worried about him.

By contrast, today's road transportation system is inconvenient, unsustainable and dangerous. Of the nearly one billion motor vehicles worldwide - enough to circle the planet 100 times if parked end to end - some 95 percent depend on oil for energy, making car travel subject to resource geopolitics and price volatility. Furthermore, combustion engines account for more than one-fifth of the world's carbon emissions, contributing significantly to climate change. And, with more than 1.2 million people dying on the road each year, car travel remains a proven killer.

Sam's world of 2030 is not mere fantasy. But achieving it will require a thorough overhaul of the existing road transportation system - and that means overcoming the complex combination of public and private elements, vested interests, ingrained business models and massive inertia that has so far impeded its development.

Indeed, with certain institutions and industries benefiting when all of the system's components - vehicles, roads, fuel stations, traffic laws, regulations, vehicle standards and licensed drivers - work together, no transformational development has occurred in road transportation since Karl Benz invented the car and Henry Ford popularised it.

A narrow focus on, say, developing better batteries, improving fuel efficiency or making car production more sustainable is inadequate to catalyse the needed transformation.

A genuinely transformational solution is needed - one that meets the needs of consumers, businesses, and governments.

An integrated network of driverless, electric vehicles that are connected, coordinated and shared should form the core of that solution. Such vehicles would be programmed to avoid crashes, leading to fewer deaths and injuries and less property damage. In order to minimise the excessive resource consumption associated with driving, the vehicles would be tailored to trip characteristics, such as the number of passengers.

For example, lightweight, two passenger vehicles can be up to 10 times more energy efficient than a typical car. In the United States, where 90 percent of cars carry one or two people, reliance on such vehicles would result in a dramatic decline in carbon emissions, which would fall even further as a result of less road congestion and smoother traffic flows. Moreover, the land and infrastructure needed for parking would be significantly reduced.

Under such a system, personal mobility could cost up to 80 percent less than owning and operating a car, with time efficiencies augmenting those savings further. For Americans earning a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (S$9.25), time spent driving at a speed of 30 miles (48km) an hour costs $0.24 cents a mile (S$0.31 per 1.61km).

At the U.S. median hourly wage of US$25 (S$31.89), each mile costs $0.83 (S$1.06). Given that Americans drive roughly three trillion miles annually, saving just one US cent a mile implies $30 billion (S$38 billion) in annual savings.

The technology needed to advance such a scheme exists. The task now is to introduce prototype systems in representative communities, in order to prove what is possible, discover consumers' preferences, determine the most attractive business models and identify and avert unexpected consequences.

Once the prototypes have proved effective and practical, they should scale quickly without public incentives. As with other innovations - such as mobile phones, e-books, digital photography and music, and flat-screen televisions - large-scale deployment will occur when the new technologies reach the market tipping point, when their value to consumers exceeds the costs to businesses of supplying them. Policy makers would be responsible only for guaranteeing the expanding system's safety.

A cleaner, safer, more convenient road transportation system is possible - and closer to being realised than many believe. It needs only the chance to prove itself.

Picture credit: Agence France-Presse

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