Many researchers, thinkers and entrepreneurs reckon that the future of road mobility does not lie in personally-owned vehicles, but in a system of autonomous electric taxis.
We have already indicated the potential for using data to improve the way people get around in the city of the future. Let us now try to discern the characteristics of the road vehicle of tomorrow.
Looking towards the 21st century sixty years ago, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted: "Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with 'robot-brains', vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.” We are not quite there yet, but the advent of the self-driving vehicle seems to be gradually becoming reality. A recent McKinsey report predicted mass adoption of smart self-driving cars by 2050.
Elon Musk, the visionary head of Tesla Motors, has stated that his company will have self-driving cars on the roads in the next five years. Tech giants Google and Uber have also entered the market. Uber has has recently started working in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, inter alia, on research in the field of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and prototypes appeared on the streets of Pittsburgh in May. Meanwhile Google Cars have started to travel the roads of California, with fairly conclusive results. Ryan Chin, Managing Director of the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, who is an expert in the ‘smart city’ and mobility fields, predicts that future passenger road transport will be based on a network of self-driving, shared-use, lightweight electric vehicles. Of course to achieve maximum efficiency we will need to create an ecosystem allowing these vehicles to entirely replace the cars we have today. This vision implies that in future, instead of getting into our cars to drive to work, we will tap on a smartphone app in order to rendezvous with one of the many self-driving electric taxis that will be permanently circulating around the city picking up and dropping off passengers.
Data-sharing between cars will enable optimisation of city traffic flows
A safer, more efficient and more sustainable ecosystem
Ryan Chin has no doubt that this type of vehicle is better, as it constitutes a safer, more efficient, and more ecological alternative to the individual petrol-powered car. Basically it will be more efficient because not having a human driver means that it never has to stop. If we do away with the existing system of privately-owned vehicles, we will be able to dispense with car parks and use the available space for leisure parks, housing, hospitals, schools, cinemas, or whatever. With their installed smart sensors, driverless cars would never need to stop at intersections. ‟We can envisage that connected vehicles will send notifications to one another so that when they arrive at an intersection, the vehicle will know in advance that no-one is trying to cut across in front of it and so will be able to proceed without stopping, whereas a human driver has to stop and take the time to check that no-one is approaching,” stresses Chin.
If on the other hand, another vehicle does arrive at the crossroads, the car will detect it, slow its pace to let it go by and cross, without missing a beat. Moreover, self-driving vehicles will create enormous time savings for their occupants, who will be able to read, work, make phone calls, and so on instead of having to concentrate on the road.
This type of system, with people sharing taxis in permanent circulation would mean that far fewer vehicles were needed on the roads, with a consequent lower likelihood of traffic jams and accidents. Moreover CO2 emissions would probably fall drastically, suggests a new study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Enormous advantages would also accrue from the more rational driving practised by autonomous vehicles, including rigorous compliance with the highway code, an even speed rather than alternate acceleration and braking, and so on. Another reason for preferring electric cars is that electricity is fungible – i.e. it can be drawn from various different sources. ‟Electricity generated from a renewable energy source such as a wind turbine works just as well as electricity from a nuclear power plant, whereas a petrol engine has to use petrol,” points out Ryan Chin, arguing: “So by using renewable sources we will steadily be able to switch to cleaner energy.”
Le The Terrafugia venture is working on the design of flying cars
Human and legal obstacles
A city free of traffic jams, noise and accidents, with futuristic taxis moving around taking people where they need to go in the blink of an eye: an idyllic picture, no doubt, but this wonderful future is not going to come about immediately. Many obstacles to the mass adoption of driverless cars remain, first and foremost the attitude of the general public. Jeff Greenblatt, the scientist behind the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab report on the ecological benefits of driverless cars, underlines that despite the fact that no-one can deny the advantages of the new approach, ‟we have no idea how people will react”. It will no doubt take several years before people agree to sit in the passenger seat rather than the driver’s seat. ‟French people like their cars”, stressed French President Georges Pompidou many years ago, and human mindsets tend to evolve less quickly than technology.
Nor does current legislation encourage the development of driverless cars. ‟Today only three or four US states have authorised autonomous vehicles on their roads as an experiment and no state has authorised them for sale, so the auto makers are investing without knowing for certain that their innovations will one day earn revenue. If the situation were different, there would be far more investors,” argues Ryan Chin. Jeff Holden, Chief Product Officer at Uber, said in an interview given to Re/code in February that it would take ‟a number of years” before autonomous vehicles were ready for market , and that his company was undertaking research in this field as part of a “long-term strategy”. Entirely replacing individually-driven cars by a fleet of autonomous taxis seems to be even further in the future. Ryan Chin believes that the way forward is through experimentation: ‟We can envisage urban areas reserved exclusively for autonomous vehicles, in the same way as some streets are reserved for pedestrians. This would help us to see things working on a small scale and if the experiment has positive results we would be able to argue for an extension of the reserved areas for this type of vehicle.”
At the moment MIT is running experiments in a large deserted area at the centre of the city of Taipei. Charlie Sorrel, writing on the Co.Exist site, argues that the co-existence of autonomous vehicles and human-driven cars on the roads will help both to ‘civilise’ drivers, and prove the superiority of AVs, thus preparing the ground for their mass adoption. In the meantime, the MIT Lab is also working on the design of flying cars. At that point reality really does start to resemble science fiction.