Why Robot Cars Matter

Why robot cars (autonomous vehicles), as demonstrated by Google this week (and randomly captured by Robert Scoble in the video above), matter.

1. Safety – cars would be safe if only there weren’t drivers behind the wheel. Driverless cars seldom get distracted or tired, have really fast perception-reaction times, know exactly how hard to break, and can communicate (potentially) with vehicles around them with Mobile Ad Hoc Networks. But this improves not only vehicle safety, it improves the safety and environment for pedestrians and bicyclists.

2. Capacity – ‘bots can follow other driverless cars at a significantly reduced distance, and can stay within much narrower lanes with greater accuracy. Capacity at bottlenecks should improve, both in throughput per lane and the number of lanes per unit roadwidth. These cars still need to go somewhere, so we need capacity on city streets as well as freeways, but we save space on parking (see below), and lane width everywhere. If we can reduce lane width, and have adequate capacity, we can reduce paved area and still see higher throughput. Most roadspace is not used most of the time now.

3. Vehicle diversity – Narrow and specialized cars are now more feasible with computers driving and increased overall safety. Especially if we move to cloud commuting (as below), we can have greater variety, and more precision in the fleet, with the right size car for the job.

4. Travel behavior – if the cost of traveling per trip declines (drivers need to exert less effort, and lose less effective time, since they can do something else), we would expect more trips (my taxi can take me wherever) and longer trips and more trips by robocar.

5. Land use – if acceptable trip distances increases, we would expect a greater spread of origins and destinations, (pejoratively, sprawl), just as commuter trains enable exurban living or living in a different city.

6. Parking – my car can drop me off at the front door, and go fairly remotely to park, so we don’t need to devote valuable space to parking ramps (garages) (we still need space, it is just far away), searching for parking is also less critical. On street parking can be abolished.

7. Transportation disadvantaged – children, the physically challenged, and others who cannot or should not drive, are now enabled. Parents, friends, and siblings need not shuttle children around, the vehicle can do that by itself. The differences between transit and private vehicles begin to collapse. We can serious consider giving passes to driverless taxis for the poor, since costs should drop with lower labor costs, and if the point below holds, paratransit services become much less expensive as well.

8. Reduced auto ownership – cloud commuting becomes possible.People no longer need to own a car, they can instead subscribe to a car sharing service.

5 thoughts on “Why Robot Cars Matter

  1. What about fuel efficiency? This reminds me with a book by Garrison that I read 8 years ago or even more. It might be time to read it again since he had a full picture built around such idea.


  2. 1. Safety – My understanding the system still requires human intervention. How does this work in practice? You are pouring yourself a coffee and suddenly you are needed and…? 2. Capacity – I really doubt lanes can be narrowed because they are needed for utility vehicles, also this will likely just be a gift for more capacity, rather than the same capacity in less space. 3. I like carshare as a short- to medium-term solution in cities, but am most interested in how things like external airbags influence risk compensation. 6. Parking – Underground garages are very expensive, energy-intensive to build, will perpetuate lots of vehicle egress in a concentrated location (not just under the rug) 7. Transportation Disadvantaged – Parents need not visit their child’s school with e.g. a child-carrying bike etc or give a hug to kids when they pick them up… just cold and sad. Decreasing labour needs AND giving homeless free rides… um… do you see the connection? 8. Cloud commuting – The best thing about carshare is the system change, not any possible technology. So, in my view a shared old stinky car is better than 15 new ones. Carshare cars should have the best technology but only if its effective, i.e. does not get risk compensated. The best carshare cars would be 20km/h speed limited solar-powered Citroen 2CVs or similar. 🙂
    This is hubris from Google, a way for private automobilists to have their cake and eat it, too. All the environmental benefits will just get compensated in other ways, or worse. And what about when people HAVE to drive for some reason? They will not be experienced.
    p.s. Apparently the Google cars have an “aggressive driving style” setting. That says it all for me…


  3. Actually I predict the long term consequences for parking are even better than this. Aside from fewer cars being owned (and thus less parking needed) and vehicles being smaller and able to valet park, I actually think street parking is the answer.
    I go into full details at http://robocars.com/parking.html
    Roughly, when cars are on the road moving, they don’t use parking. So all the streets are for moving cars. When fewer people need to be moving, you don’t need as many lanes to handle it, and the sides of the street can turn into parking. (It’s not really parking, it’s standing.) And I don’t just mean the street parking we have today. I mean parking in front of driveways and hydrants and the rest, and double or triple parking. That’s because robots can open a space in seconds for people to get out of driveways or from behind lanes of cars.
    We will get to turn many of our parking lots into parkland, or buildings.
    Of course there is tons more on the web site.


  4. I am inclined to agree with Todd. Even though all this looks very convenient and advantageous, I see all of Todd’s point as valid. Plus I am sure it will have other implications that we can’t imagine at this time. Things like these always do. So much dependence on technology is bound to handicap us.


  5. This is an amazing concept. I think that the vision looks good, but putting it into practice may be more difficult. There are many advantages including Eco-friendly and efficiency but there are disadvantages as well. People like owning cars, people like driving to work, or picking up their kids. How would robot cars interact with other human drivers if communication is not possible?
    @Todd – Interesting points – (I agree with you on the “aggressive driving style” setting…LOL)


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