Life Science & Technology

Driving is nearing the end of the road

Self-driving cars are expected to revolutionize the transportation industry. Let’s take a look into the future.

Self-driving cars have always seemed so futuristic, like something straight out of a movie. The idea of letting yourself lose focus on the road as you’re driving home, to work, or on a road trip sounds like the perfect scenario. However, people do not realize that this may be our reality sooner than we think.

According to a study commissioned by Bosch, a supplier of car technology and services, autonomous vehicles will be driving around our cities and towns as early as 2030. Not only does it predict that there be self-driving cars on the road, but the study estimates that between 2040 and 2050, “self-driving vehicles will then account for about 90 percent of all journeys in cities,” according to Andreas Tschiesner, a partner for the consulting company which prepared the study.

Americans spend on average just under fifty minutes a day in their cars. Self-driving vehicles promise to allow them to get more done with that extra time. Perhaps they would check and respond to work emails, phone or facetime calls, or shop online. Tschiesner predicts that in Europe, autonomous vehicles would add an extra one billion euro to the EU economy every day, “if half of all driving time can be utilized productively.”

However, it is clear that the introduction of this technology will also bring its challenges. Roadside stores and restaurants that rely on the attraction of people from their drive will be disadvantaged. Some autonomous vehicles may not even have a steering wheel or brake pedals, and since the car will plan a route to bring you to the desired destination without any spontaneous stops, there will no longer be the chance to pass a restaurant and go in for a meal. This will cause many roadside diners and “truck stop” restaurants to close. 

Even more significantly, a U.S federal presentation predicts that autonomous cars could, “kill some 500,000 transportation jobs – from truck drivers to subway operators to taxi drivers and even courier services.” Bus drivers will be among those worst hit, with a potential loss of thousands of jobs. Over 150,000 transit bus drivers and nearly 500,000 school bus drivers could lose their jobs in the U.S. alone. Another 600,000 jobs could be lost that rely on the transportation industry, such as parking attendants, auto-body repair workers, driving teachers, lawyers and even police and emergency workers. The foremost cause of traffic collisions is human error and eliminating our ability to interfere with traffic would significantly reduce the number of fatalities that occur due to accidents. This would result in a lower demand for emergency responders, which in the end is a positive because less people are getting hurt. 

Despite the negative impacts of self-driving vehicles, this disruptive change to our transportation model will come with many benefits. “For 95 percent of the time, private vehicles are stationary in parking lots, traffic jams, and even parked at people’s homes,” says Carlo Ratti when asked about the inefficient state of worldwide car usage. The engineer, architect and director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, thinks the solution for this inefficient usage lies in car-sharing concepts. The importance of car sharing will grow dramatically with the use of automated vehicles. Ratti predicts that sharing one autonomous car can replace 10 to 30 others. Not only does this mean fewer cars on the roads, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, it also means that fewer parking spots will be needed. 

Since parking lots and roadside parking will no longer be necessary, that space can be used for other things. In America there are four parking spots for every car in existence, not including spots in front of private homes in residential areas. All of this combined, “totals to about 13,000 square kilometers, which corresponds to an area bigger than Puerto Rico,” said Carlo Ratti. When this space is no longer needed for parking, it could be converted into green spaces such as parks or gardens or commercial and residential land-uses. 

A large challenge our society will have to overcome to achieve full automation is getting used to sharing things. According to Malene Freudendal-Pedersen, a professor in Urban Planning, “Young people are far more aware of bike or car-sharing services than older people.” A study from the International Conference on Intelligent Transportation Systems shows that the majority of people using car-sharing services in Germany are between the ages of 25 and 34. Since young people are already aware of this concept they may be more likely to embrace this idea in the future. 

Another form of automated vehicle is predicted to be the shuttle bus. Susan Shaheen, Professor for Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, predicts that major cities’ streets in North America, Europe and some of Asia will have automated shuttle buses transporting people by 2030. Consulting firm Roland Berger estimates that, “about 2.5 million shuttle buses will be on the roads in Europe, USA and China alone.” However, a lot of technological and social work is required beforehand. 

Because the shuttles would be self-driving, they would have the ability to, “provide greater mobility to the people living there,” says Shaheen. The shuttles, she predicts, would be more frequent and reliable than regular buses or other forms of public transportation because of how often they could come, especially in areas where buses do not have flexible times. If you change the destination or add additional stops along the journey, “the shuttle automatically takes that into account in its route planning.” Shaheen foresees inexpensive fare prices due to reduced driving costs. 

This shuttle’s convenience could benefit many societal groups that are susceptible to the limitations of public transit. Such groups include wheelchair users, but also workers who end late at night that could call a Robo taxi quicker rather than waiting for the next bus to arrive at the bus stop in the middle of the night. A Robo taxi is just an example of an automated car-sharing service similar to ones presented at the Consumer Electronic Show 2019 by Lyft. 

At the CES 2019, an annual trade show in Las Vegas, Bosch presented an electrically powered IoT shuttle which is their idea of future mobility. The IoT shuttle is connected with its surroundings. “It communicates with other vehicles, localizes its position on the road with centimeter precision, and adapts its style of driving to the conditions around it.” Bosch’s shuttle contains screens for “infotainment” that every passenger can use. During the passenger’s journey, “families can watch a film together and work colleagues can share a presentation on the large main screen in the middle.” 

As interior hygiene plays an important role in car-sharing, the cameras will also notice if someone has made a mess and can tell when the shuttle requires a cleaning, so it is spotless for the next ride. New jobs will be created in vehicle and fleet management. Tschiesner also expects  greater demand for personnel in the cleaning services sector due to this need for an immaculate and pristine car. 

Self-driving cars could change urban mobility significantly and permanently. They would have a large economic impact on towns and cities.  These cars and shuttles could improve the mobility of many people and although this might cause short term harm to some segments of our society, they would likely be an asset to society in the longer term. According to Andreas Tschiesner, “It’ll basically be as far-reaching as the change from horse-drawn carriages to cars.” 

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay 

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