Melbourne was recently yet again voted the world’s most livable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Apart from giving Melburnians the satisfaction of beating Sydney – again – the news was met with a mixed response by locals, who question which part of Melbourne was evaluated in the survey and what criteria were included (and left out) to allow Melbourne to take the top spot. While the Economist survey likely focused on the city center, the majority of Melbourne’s population lives in the sprawling suburbs, underserved by strained public transport and with ever increasing traffic congestion.
Traffic congestion is a huge problem all over the world. Attributing a cost to traffic congestion can be tricky, but in Australia alone it was estimated at $16 billion in 2015, set to climb to $37 billion by 2030. In the United States the cost of congestion is put at $160 billion. And with the UN estimating urbanization and population growth will add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, the problem will only get worse.
Being stuck in a traffic jam is intensely frustrating and can be stressful. There is nothing the driver can do apart from ponder the lost time. This is where autonomous vehicles come in. Luckily, most of the major car manufacturers and other companies agree that autonomous vehicles are the way of the future and are investing heavily in self-driving technology. The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking to invest $4 billion in vehicle automation.
Google’s self-driving cars have been on the roads for years, already amassing more than 1.7 million miles. Tesla has a slightly different approach, taking advantage of its cars’ Internet connection to access sensor data and update the vehicles over the air. With so many Tesla cars on the roads, the company has accumulated 780 million miles against which to test its self-driving software. Tesla gets another million miles worth of data every 10 hours.
Apple, perhaps a little late on the scene, is apparently investing more than anyone else. A recent report from Morgan Stanley appeared to show Apple outspending the major car manufacturers 20:1 and even Tesla by 10:1, investing more in the Apple car and related services than it spent on the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch combined.
Tesla’s Elon Musk recently stated that “full autonomy is going to come a hell of a lot faster than anyone thinks.” Like much of what he says, he might just be right. Earlier this month, Ford announced it intends to mass produce a fully autonomous car without a steering wheel by 2021. And Uber, only three months after announcing it was testing its self-driving car in Pittsburgh, just announced its self-driving cars will start taking passengers this month.
Why self-driving cars?
There are numerous benefits to self-driving cars, and two major ones are:
The WHO estimates 1.25 million people died in road accidents in 2013. A U.S. Department of Transportation survey found human error was the cause in 94% of fatal car crashes. And then there are the non-fatal accidents to consider. Computers don’t get bored, drowsy, change the music, or send a text message. They are more reliable and can react much faster than a human driver.
A 2007 study by Harvard Health Watch found the average American spends 101 minutes a day driving. Most of that time is unproductive. There is not a lot the driver can do apart from concentrate on the road and drive. Imagine if you could spend that time working, reading, napping, or doing anything else you wanted. It would change the whole philosophy behind the car journey, of trying to beat the rush hour traffic and repeatedly changing lanes in the hope of saving a few minutes.
There are several other benefits as well. Autonomous vehicles would give greater mobility to the elderly, disabled, or visually impaired. Urban space could be increased 15-20% through elimination of parking spaces, since autonomous vehicles could drop passengers off and then park elsewhere. There would be significant fuel savings through more efficient driving as well as the potential for reduced drag through “platooning” and lighter vehicles.
Roadways designed specifically for autonomous vehicles could look quite different. There would be no need for signage or lane markings. Lanes could be narrower and cars could drive closer together, increasing throughput. There could also be a social change, with less pressure to live close to city centers, as the journey is no longer perceived as lost time.
We can go beyond not needing to drive. Researchers at MIT have come up with a slot-based system that eliminates the need for traffic lights at intersections, doubling traffic efficiency and cutting travel delay to almost zero. Airbus is working on a battery-powered autonomous flying taxi and plans real-world prototype testing by the end of 2017.
The next target will be car ownership. Depending on what you read, millennials may or may not care for car ownership. But with our cars parked 95% of the time, it just doesn’t make sense to own one outright. There will always be some people who want to own cars, but they will be a shrinking minority.