The autonomous future: Driverless vehicles and app-based mobility

by Laura Beitz

More and more, driverless cars are taking to the streets. Google, BMW and Audi are testing their autonomous cars across the United Kingdom. Gothenburg, Sweden will host Volvo’s launch with 100 cars next year. In California, autonomous vehicles are already a common sight on public streets. In April, squadrons of driverless trucks were sent across Europe as part of the “EU Truck Platooning Challenge.” Current trends suggest that full automation will rapidly reduce the number of humans behind a steering wheel and revolutionize personal transportation in countless ways.

Car sales are growing rapidly worldwide. The global fleet is estimated to reach 111 million light-duty vehicles by 2020. But private car ownership and the transport system that supports it are inefficient and unsustainable. Private automobiles allow one to travel fast at any time and offer great convenience. This freedom also has its price. Traffic is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and an increasing dependency on oil. Tens of thousands die on the road every year in the European Union alone, and according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 93% of all road accidents are due to human error.

The benefits of a driverless future

Recent technological developments have already enabled the automation of a number of tasks while driving in mainstream traffic, such as lane keeping, cruise control, parking or breaking to assist drivers. In addition to these pre-existing technologies, fully autonomous vehicles can drive, steer and accelerate without human intervention. According to Jaqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, full automation aims to “mitigate the negative effects of transport, while ensuring positive aspects of mobility.”

As things stand today, traffic jams are caused by inefficient use of lanes and intersections, insufficient road capacity and accidents. With the advent of autonomous driving, however, technologies such as adaptive cruise control, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication will allow vehicles to travel closer together safely thereby smoothing the traffic flow. When approaching an intersection, for example, vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and with surrounding infrastructure to coordinate safe and efficient passage. More cars will therefore be able to utilize “green time” at traffic lights.

Autonomous cars will likewise be able to maintain constant speed for optimal fuel combustion and reduced aerodynamic drag. Studies estimate that up to 75% in fuel savings can be achieved, which will significantly lower GHG emissions and reduce the transportation sector’s heavy burden on the environment. Furthermore, autonomous driving will set the stage for a switch to electric vehicles. Not only are tailpipe emissions from e-cars non-existent, they also produce less than half the emissions of a conventional car during the entirety of their life cycle, including production and disposal. With a continued rise in renewable energy generation, the carbon footprint can be further reduced.

Autonomous mobility on-demand

The greatest potential of autonomous vehicles however lies in their ability to re-design the transport system by decreasing society’s reliance upon private automobiles. Such a transformation can be facilitated by adopting mobility-on-demand concepts such as Carsharing and ride-sourcing services like Uber. By employing this model, fleets of autonomous vehicles can be distributed throughout a city or region and coordinated by a smartphone app.

App customers simply request a vehicle, which then picks them up and drives them to their desired destination. Upon arrival, the driverless car continues on to the nearest customer requesting a ride. Parking lots become redundant. Registration by credit or debit card validates the passenger. Driving documents are not necessary as the car drives by itself. The app uses GPS to locate clients and the closest available car. The program tracks departures and arrivals, computes the optimal customer-car combination and informs the customer of his or her waiting time and provides a price estimate via the app.

But before autonomous driving can change the way society perceives and uses personal transportation, a number of legal and technical issues must be addressed. Technical challenges will arise when driving into unmapped geographic areas, on unspecified roadway types or in poor weather conditions, which may influence the range of the automobile’s sensors and cameras. These factors can be solved using special algorithms and with comprehensive tests.

Technical developers cannot however tackle ethical and legal issues, such as data security and liability. The onus here lies solely on local authorities, who must create a suitable framework within which to ensure the safe testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles. Nevertheless, current estimates reveal that semi-autonomous vehicles will hit the roads in 2020 and that full automation will be reached by 2035. It will therefore not be long until one can hail autonomous vehicles via smartphone, lie back and enjoy a carbon-free ride.

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