Making the shift to driverless vehicles carries tremendous potential benefits to fuel use, emissions, traffic congestion, and more. At the same time, the road ahead does have some technology and regulatory curves that will need to be navigated if this technology is to truly take off and gain mass acceptance.
Efficiency and Cost Reductions
Operating a vehicle in the U.S. costs around 90 cents a mile, including fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc. But that cost goes up to as high as $3 a mile for dwellers in dense urban areas, where insurance and parking costs are higher. Taxi companies, Uber, and Lyft also charge around $2-3 a mile, the reason they are cost-effective in cities, but not elsewhere.
But half that $3 a mile goes to pay the driver, so a self-driving vehicle would cost $1.50 a mile. Real-time information about traffic and parking, leading to more efficient use, can get that down to $1.20. Algorithms for efficient shared use of vehicles for passengers who have a variety of starting points and destinations can drop the per mile price down to the 90 cents that is the average cost of operating an owned vehicle.
Clearly, the low-hanging fruit for introducing shared driverless vehicles is in densely populated cities. But as experience builds up, costs drop, and ease of use increases, they can become cost-effective in less dense areas. And they can always drive those who are impaired, elderly, or otherwise unsuitable for driving.
That’s one reason that cities are also looking to driverless public transit – increased efficiencies, reduced costs, more effective use of roadways, and convenient travel.
“This bus has no brake or accelerator pedal. It has no steering wheel, either. In fact, it doesn’t have a driver — it operates using sensors and software, although for now, a person is stationed on board ready to hit a red “stop” button in an emergency…A driverless car, after all, is still a car, carrying at best a few people. By transporting many passengers on what could be very flexible routes, driverless buses could help reduce the number of cars clogging city streets. It’s no surprise that the bus is being tested in Helsinki, which has been at the forefront of efforts to use technology to rethink public transportation.”
Every ride someone takes in a bus like this is one more step toward acceptance and comfort with driverless vehicles.
“Don’t Let the Human Drive the Bus”
In February 2017, the National Safety Council published an estimate that as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, a 6% rise from 2015 and a 13% increase since 2014. Motor vehicle injuries that required medical consultation were estimated to be roughly 4.6 million in 2016.
Beyond the human toll in injuries and deaths, there is a quantifiable financial impact as well – $432.5 billion dollars in medical expenses, wage and productivity loss, administrative expenses, employer costs, and property damage.
To date, the published safety records of driverless vehicles has been exceptionally good though when something does happen (the 2016 Tesla fatality, the recent rollover by an Uber SUV), coverage naturally gravitates to that news. But think about the benefits to families and the economy if self-driving public transit and later, personal vehicles, could eliminate many of those fatalities and reducing the overall trend in accidents.
So, What are the Speed Bumps?
The big fear of commercial companies pursuing this goal is that there will be 50 states with 50 different sets of regulations on self-driving cars. And they are telling legislators to expect self-driving cars to show up first in ride-sharing applications.
Hal Lenox, GM’s Regional Director of Government Affairs for the Western Region, told Washington State lawmakers that “we see the biggest benefit of autonomous vehicles in the near term when combined with ride-sharing.”
Michigan, perhaps striving to be friendly to its native car industry, passed legislation in December broadly supportive of the testing and deployment of autonomous taxi fleets. GM is piloting such a fleet with electric Chevy Bolts as the vehicles.
While ride-sharing has already caused regulatory conflicts in various cities, car makers are hoping to create a stepwise plan for introducing autonomous vehicles first in highly controlled, localized ride-sharing scenarios as a way of developing a consistent set of regulations nationwide.
The technology still has a ways to go as we’ve previously discussed in “What will it Take for Ford, Uber and others to Meet Their Challenging New Targets for Driverless Cars?” Sensor fusion, the blending of multiple sensor inputs to generate a real-time understanding of the vehicle’s environment, position, motion, etc., has made great strides with the integration of LiDAR, computer vision, mapping, GPS, inertial systems like KVH’s inertial measurement units (IMUs), etc., but work is still proceeding in this area.
Some observers also think that the ease of implementing ride-hailing apps might be obscuring a lot of other business difficulties for those seeking to enter a new business area.
Analyst Maryann Keller cites her own experience with rental cars to point out that Lyft and Uber developed their businesses by offloading maintenance, depreciation, and insurance costs on their drivers. Owning the fleet that provides driving services is a different business model altogether. These vehicles “are, after all, cars that have to be acquired, serviced, repaired, insured and depreciated, thereby transforming the asset-light balance sheet of an app company into something more akin to that of a rental car business.”
What’s on The Road Ahead?
So how far into the future is the promise of self-driving cars that can operate completely autonomously in any weather and in any traffic situation? Most industry analysts expect it will be many years before autonomous driving technology is real-world ready. In the meantime, we’ll get to dip our toes into those waters with limited-range, self-driving public transit and ride-sharing fleets. For example, Waymo, Google’s self-driving car spinoff, recently announced that Phoenix, AZ, residents can sign up for rides in self-driving minivans for free.
“We want as many people as possible to experience our technology, and we want to bring self-driving cars to more communities sooner,” said John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo.”
Ride-sharing firms and auto manufacturers are apparently betting that an investment in ride sharing opportunities will help future auto buyers to overcome the initial discomfort in sitting in the back of a driverless car with no way to take control if things go wrong. After all, says BMW’s Tony Douglas, you’ve already given that autonomy up to a driver.
Discover the challenges and solutions to making unmanned and autonomous platforms as safe and effective as possible. Download the free ebook, “Unmanned Technology Challenges: Teaching Machines to Operate Like Humans” today.
with contributions by Alex Jablokow