Get rid of the driver and the car stays king

LA City Highways

The motor vehicle is one of the key features of modern affluence along with such things as plumbing, electricity, universal education and modern health care. It gave us mobility and independence, and allowed us to move from the slums to the suburbs.

It has various shortcomings as we all know. Driving is stressful and dangerous, with millions killed and disabled every year. And when there is insufficient investment in freeways and public transit, it can eat up a lot of our time.

However, as with other challenges thrown up by our material existence, we can expect human ingenuity to come to the rescue. In this case the solution is the driverless vehicle which require the traveler to do no more than specify their destination. Much of the technology has already been developed and prototype vehicles are well advanced.

This is the gist of it. The car knows the route it has to take as well as its own coordinates as it navigates itself to the destination. This could be achieved with a GPS system although it would work better if there were a traffic management system adjusting vehicle routes on the basis of changing traffic conditions. This information could perhaps be provided by sensors in the roads. Through its own sensors the car is aware of its surroundings, in particular the speed of other vehicles, the presence of obstructions and upcoming bends in the road. It also knows its own speed and whether it is veering off course. It has on board equipment which can instantly convert this knowledge of its surroundings and its own behavior into the appropriate adjustment of steering, brake and throttle.

With no scope for human error, accidents will be rare. Traffic jams will also be rare, so our trips will be quicker and more predictable. There will not be the physical obstructions from accidents nor the slow reaction time of drivers which prevents heavy traffic from running smoothly and in unison like carriages on a train. (Read about the mathematics of traffic jams here.) Traffic will be automatically diverted away from areas of potential congestion. There will still be the occasional breakdowns but these would be infrequent because of the increasing reliability of vehicles.

Freed from the stressful task of driving, we will be able to employ our time usefully while enjoying privacy, comfort and personal security which is not possible with public transit. We can read, teleconference, watch TV or video, draft an email, nurse a baby or sleep. Children and the infirm will be able to travel independently as will the inebriated or sedated. When we get to the destination the car will drop us off and then find its own parking spot.

Such a major change could take decades to happen so we still need to do a lot to make driving quicker and safer in the meantime. More freeways and complementary public transit are part of the solution, of course. But so are a range of new technologies including ones that will eventually be components of the driverless system.

Traffic can be better managed with real time knowledge of the number of vehicles and their speed, and perhaps with information from vehicles about where they are going. Drivers can receive information about hold ups on their routes and perhaps even advise on the best route to take given traffic conditions.

We can expect cars to get a lot smarter. In luxury cars we are already seeing features such as adaptive cruise control which adjusts its speed to the vehicle in front, on board cameras that can read speed signs, a light that warns you if there is a vehicle in your blind-spot and a detection system that corrects for any instability.

So by the time we are ready to go driverless much of the technology will already be in place.

Whether vehicles remain privately owned or assigned, or tend to become driverless taxis is an interesting question. The taxi option would allow users to pool the fixed costs of the vehicle. And in the absence of drivers, the only extra costs specific to a taxi system are dead travel time between clients, and the booking system. The latter is just a bit of IT while the dead travel time may not be much greater than that avoided by not having to do as much parking as private vehicles. Private possession of a vehicle would be important if you found the expected waiting time or the slight risk of a long delay unacceptable. And the more you travel the less the benefit from sharing fixed costs with others.

The transport revolution will not stop there of course. Highways in the sky make a lot of sense given that they cost nothing to “build”. We just have to develop the vehicles.

Something else we will see is the replacement of elevators in buildings by chutes that allow you to travel horizontally as well as vertically. Your vehicle will dock when you get on or off so that others can overtake you. The integration of inside and outside modes of transport will be an obvious way to go. You could, for example, travel directly and seamlessly from from your 50th story apartment to your dentist’s surgery on the 10th floor of a building on the other side of town.

These innovations will deliver major improvements in our material standard of living. Of course they are very much at odds with what the hair shirt brigade have in mind. They want us to “save the planet” by relying on more primitive ways of getting around such as public transit, push bike and shanks pony, and by avoiding “unnecessary” travel. Cycling and walking seem more like recreation than a good way of getting from A to B. I agree there is a lot of travel that should be made unnecessary, at least for humans. Grocery shopping comes to mind here. With driverless vehicles, home delivery of goods ordered by computer will be quite cheap.

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