Although they’ve been a staple of science fiction novels for decades, it looks like self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles are slowly (or maybe not that slowly!) becoming a reality. With ride-sharing companies like Uber and Google’s sister company Waymo already investing in their own self-driving fleets, and logistics companies like UPS already pre-ordering Tesla’s semi-autonomous all-electric ‘Semi’ trucks which go into production next year, the stage has been set for rapid innovation. Here’s how self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles (AVs) could change the future of transport forever.
More sustainable transport
One of the most obvious benefits of AVs is the possibility for reduced emissions as compared with their human-operated counterparts. This is because driving at speed followed by braking and re-accelerating (i.e. driving like a human) burns a lot more fuel or battery power than is actually needed to get from point A to point B. By drawing information in from multiple sources such as traffic conditions up ahead, extremely precise GPS and historical data, AVs can avoid this kind of behavior and travel more efficiently, reducing emissions and improving air quality. Combined with charging stations which utilize renewable energy sources, the potential for positive change is huge.
If the requirements of AVs are actually taken into account when constructing new roads, transport systems can become even more sustainable. Sustainable road pavements which make use of complementary technologies like PRS Geo-Technologies’ Neoloy geocells – which allow for the use of local or recycled materials, lower the project’s carbon footprint and improve durability while reducing maintenance costs – could be used in conjunction with new infrastructure for AVs.
Another obvious benefit is the need for fewer vehicles in the first place, as being able to easily access reliable driverless transport will mean fewer people feel the need to purchase their own vehicle. This trend could have the knock-on positive effect of reducing overall congestion. As technology improves and vehicles become more lightweight, emissions can be reduced even further.
Most of the time, cars don’t cause traffic accidents, drivers do. Automated vehicles have access to information that humans don’t – such as cameras, radar, and sensors that allow then to ‘see’ 360 degrees around the vehicle. Automated vehicles can monitor a number of data sets all at once and react much more quickly in a potentially dangerous situation than is humanly possible. They can’t get distracted by their passengers, drive drunk, disobey traffic regulations, exceed the speed limit, or fall victim to road rage. We have already been making use of assisted driving technologies such as emergency braking and cruise control for years – but it’s understandable that we’re still a little reluctant to relinquish control entirely. Despite a very small number of accidents involving autonomous vehicles, the potential for them to save thousands of lives should not be underestimated just because it might bruise our egos a little! No technology is perfect, but rapid improvement is possible. Air travel also suffered from teething problems in the early years but is now still the safest way to travel.
Like any technological revolution, there are those who suffer as a result as well as those who benefit. The impact on employment could be massive, with 3.5 million people employed as truck drivers in the USA alone. On the other hand, it could give reliable transport options to the disabled and elderly, as well as children and teenagers too young to drive themselves. Reduced cost of transport could make it easier for small businesses to compete with established corporates and encourage entrepreneurship.
Very different urban centers
If autonomous vehicles become the norm, city centers and urban environments could become far friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians. This is not just because of the reduction in the overall number of vehicles, but because driverless cars require less room to maneuver, allowing for narrower streets. Reduced need for parking space will free up room for other activities, and because traffic lights might become obsolete and AVs will automatically make room for pedestrians, crossing the road wherever it makes sense to do so could become possible.
Back home, families could convert what used to be their garage into rooms suitable for letting out as affordable housing – creating more living space where it’s needed while allowing families to make a small additional income.
Work and lifestyle
Instead of sitting in frustrating traffic for several hours a day, people could start working, studying or simply relaxing while their AV does all the driving. With the pressure off, they will probably consider living further away from the city center than they normally would. And while it’s still early days, the buzz around self-driving cars is growing very quickly. Life will still be a journey – but the ride might be a very different experience!