Car & (No) Driver

With the evolution of vehicle automation, connectedness, and autonomy, do we know where we’re going with no one behind the wheel?

""Have you ever considered what is the most dangerous and least reliable component in every vehicle? Research consistently shows that it’s you (and us), the driver the behind the wheel. Since the advent of the automobile, vehicle engineering and design have been trying to save us from ourselves, largely through automated technologies. Vehicle automation has worked to make our driving more convenient (automatic door locks, the check engine light, self-parking), safer (seat belt reminders, anti-lock brakes, collision avoidance systems), and more efficient (regular and adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance).

Our cars—through a variety of sensors, cameras, radar, and other technologies—are increasingly able to sense themselves and the world around them. But what if the ability to sense the world around it evolved into the ability to communicate with the world around it? Such is the potential reality posed by vehicle connectivity.

Connected vehicles employ two-way communication with both infrastructure (such as GPS, 3G wireless Internet) and one another (such as the traffic and collision avoidance transponders/systems mandatory on all commercial airplanes). In our automobiles, this connection allows for much more than simply making a mobile call, browsing the Web, avoiding a traffic jam, or navigating to a destination. When combined with enhanced vehicle automation, connected vehicle technology promises to bring us truly autonomous cars.

With autonomous operation, the driver can disengage and the car’s automated and connected technologies can intelligently, safely, and efficiently take the proverbial wheel. Google’s self-driving car is a big step in that direction; a video showing a blind man using the car to run errands to Taco Bell and the dry cleaners has garnered more than 3.6 million views to date.

But imagine the additional possibilities. For instance, the epidemic of texting-while-driving is well known, with studies showing that doing so is as dangerous or more so than a drunk driver getting behind the wheel. But what if—via autonomous vehicles—the solution wasn’t to stop texting while driving, but rather to stop driving while texting? And what might the implications of autonomous vehicles be for traffic congestion, fuel economy, parking, and much more?

Consider Streetline, a company whose street-level sensors and mobile apps feed real-time information to drivers for tasks such as finding the nearest available parking space. According to a 2012 International Parking Institute survey, thirty percent of city traffic is attributed to drivers looking for spaces. Together with automation, connected technologies like those offered by Streetline could result in a more efficient system, reducing traffic congestion and time spent searching for spaces.

Another exciting example is SARTRE, Safe Road Trains for the Environment. The three-year project of Volvo in Europe concluded this past fall, demonstrating the ability to “platoon” vehicles on an open highway. A lead truck plus three cars—all equipped with cameras, radar, sensors, wireless technology—traveled at speeds of 60mph, often only 13 feet apart from one another, all while the platoon reaped the fuel efficiencies of reduced drag and the drivers sat back and relaxed, hands free.

This technology isn’t just on the horizon or confined to noteworthy pilot projects such as SARTRE. It’s here now. Google and Audi both have licenses to test autonomous vehicles on the roads of Nevada and California. At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, Toyota and Audi unveiled automated technologies for their future models, while Ford showcased the newest version of its Ford Sync platform and even an open mobile app developer program. That trend is expected to continue this week and next with more announcements at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

And what is RMI’s interest in autonomous vehicles? We’ll explore that question in forthcoming blogs, especially looking at implications for energy efficiency, fuel consumption, carbon emissions, and vehicle miles traveled. What whole-system efficiencies might be achieved if we take the best of vehicle automation and merge it with the best of connected vehicle technology? Such technologies are already helping to “save us from ourselves” with regards to safety. Can they also help us reap efficiencies that benefit people and the planet?

We don’t pretend to paint a rose-colored, oversimplified futuristic picture. There are challenges to achieving such a reality, necessary steps to take to get there, and the potential for unintended negative consequences we must consider. But the prospect of a “car and no driver” scenario is coming sooner than later, and we must be prepared to capitalize on its benefits and opportunities, even as we consider its implications.

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Image courtesy Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons 2.0 license.