Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Driverless Cars

Automobile travel transformed how people relate to distance: it decentralized how people live and work, and gave them a new array of choices for everything from the Friday night date to the long-distance road trip. I occasionally marvel that we can take our family of five, with all our gear, door-to-door for a getaway to a YMCA family camp 250 miles away in northern Minnesota--all for the marginal cost of less than a tank of gas. Driverless cars may turn out to be one of those rare inventions that transform transportation even further. KPMG and the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research published a report on "Self-driving cars: The next revolution." last August. It's available from the KPMG website here, and from the CAR website here. I missed the report when it first came out, but then saw this story about it in a recent issue of the Economist magazine.

Many people have heard about the self-driving cars run by Google that have already driven over 200,000 miles on public roads. The report makes clear that automakers are taking this technology very seriously as well, and developing the range of sensor-based and connected-vehicle technologies that would be needed to make this work. Examples of the technology include the Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) equipment that does 360-degree sensing around a car. The LIDAR systems that Google retrofitted into cars costs about $70,000 per car. Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC) has certain standards and a designated frequency for short-range communication, and can thus be focuses on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. Ultimately, these would be tied together so that self-driving cars could travel closely together in "platoons" and minimize traffic congestion. And it's not just Google and the car companies. Intel Capital, for example, recently launched at $100 million Connected Car Fund.   

 Of course, it is always possible that driverless cars will run up against insurmountable barriers. But skeptics should remember that the original idea of the automobile looked pretty dicey as well. Millions of adults will be personal driving motorized vehicles at potentially high speeds? They will drive on a network of publicly provided roads that will reach all over the country? They will fill these vehicles with flammable fuel that will be dispensed by tens of thousands of small stores all over the country? If the social gains seem large enough, technologies often have a way of emerging. With driverless cars, what are some of the gains? Quotations are from the report: as usual, footnotes are omitted for readability.

Costs of Traffic Accidents
Self-driving cars have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives, and prevent hundreds of thousands of injuries, every year.  "In 2010, there were approximately six million vehicle crashes leading to 32,788 traffic deaths, or approximately 15 deaths per 100,000 people. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans aged 4–34. And of the 6 million crashes, 93 percent are attributable to human error. ... More than 2.3 million adult drivers and passengers were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2009. According to research from the American Automobile Association (AAA), traffic crashes cost Americans $299.5 billion annually." Moreover, an enormous reduction in crash risk would allow a redesign of cars to be much lighter.

Costs of Infrastructure

Driverless cars will allow many more cars to use a highway simultaneously. "An essential implication for an autonomous vehicle infrastructure is that, because efficiency will improve so dramatically, traffic capacity will increase exponentially without building additional lanes or roadways. Research indicates that platooning of vehicles could increase highway lane capacity by up to 500 percent. It
may even be possible to convert existing vehicle infrastructure to bicycle or pedestrian uses. Autonomous transportation infrastructure could bring an end to the congested streets and extra-wide highways of large urban areas."

They could reduce the cost of design of highways. "[T]oday’s roadways and supporting infrastructure must accommodate for the imprecise and often-unpredictable movement patterns of human-driven vehicles with extra-wide lanes, guardrails, stop signs, wide shoulders, rumble strips and other features
not required for self-driving, crashless vehicles. Without those accommodations, the United States could significantly reduce the more than $75 billion it spends annually on roads, highways, bridges, and other infrastructure."

Driverless cars will alter the need for parking.  Imagine that your car will drop you at your office door, head off to park itself, and come back when you call it.  "In his book ReThinking a Lot (2012), Eran Ben-Joseph notes, “In some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.”"

Costs of Time
Driverless cars might be faster, but in addition, they open up the possibility of using travel time for work or relaxation. Your car could become a rolling office, or a place for watching movies, or a place for a nap. "An automated transportation system could not only eliminate most urban congestion, but it would also allow travelers to make productive use of travel time. In 2010, an estimated 86.3 percent of all workers 16 years of age and older commuted to work in a car, truck, or van, and 88.8 percent of those drove alone ... The average commute time in the United States is about 25 minutes.
Thus, on average, approximately 80 percent of the U.S. workforce loses 50 minutes of potential productivity every workday.  With convergence, all or part of this time is recoverable. Self-driving vehicles may be customized to serve the needs of the traveler, for example as mobile offices, sleep pods, or entertainment centers." I find myself imagining the overnight road-trip, where instead of driving all day, you sleep in the car and awake at your destination. 

Costs of Energy
The combination of much lighter cars, being driven much more efficiently, could dramatically reduce energy use. Lighter cars use less fuel: "Vehicles could also be significantly lighter and more energy
efficient than their human-operated counterparts as they no longer need all the heavy safety features, such as reinforced steel bodies, crumple zones, and airbags. (A 20 percent reduction in weight corresponds to a 20 percent increase in efficiency.)"  "Platooning alone, which would reduce the effective drag coefficient on following vehicles, could reduce highway fuel use by up to 20 percent..." "According to a report published by the MIT Media Lab, “In congested urban areas, about 40 percent of total gasoline use is in cars looking for parking."

 Costs of Car Ownership
Most cars are unused for 22 hours out of every day. I already know people in cities like New York who own a car, but keep it in storage for out-of-city trips. I know people who use companies like ZipCar, a membership-based service that lets you have a car for a few hours when you need it. Driverless cars may offer a replacement for car ownership. Need a car? A few taps on your smart-phone and one will come to meet you, and take you where you want to be. The price will of course be lower if you don't mind being picked up in an automated carpool. 

Mobility for the Young and the Old
Imagine being an elderly person who has become uncomfortable with driving, at least at certain times or under certain conditions. Driverless cars would offer continues mobility. Imagine being able to put your teenager in a car and have them safely delivered to their destination. Imagine always having a safe ride home after a night on the town.

How Fast?
The fully self-driving car isn't right around the corner. Clearly, costs need to come down substantially and a number of complementary technologies need to be created. However, we do already have cars in the commercial market with cruise control and anti-lock brakes, as well as cars that sense potential crash hazards and can parallel park themselves. Changes like these happen slowly, and then in a rush. As the report notes, "The adoption of most new technologies proceeds along an S-curve, and we believe the path to self-driving vehicles will follow a similar trajectory." Maybe 10-15 years? Faster?