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How Driverless Vehicles Are Set to Transform Our Lives

Photo: © RioPatuca Images, Dollar Photo Club

Photo: © RioPatuca Images, Dollar Photo Club

Vehicles which drive themselves might sound like science fiction but they may very well be on our roads within 5 years. Vehicles with varying levels of self-driving capability are already available to consumers today, and the transition to full autonomous operation is expected to be gradual taking up to 15-20 years. The pace of change will depend in part on acceptance by consumers, regulators and the wider industries which may be disrupted by the changes.

Although driverless vehicles are still a few years away, they have already started to shape some visions for a mobility transformation driven by four key converging forces: Vehicle electrification, automated self-driving, mobile computing and on-demand car-sharing. The coming together of these powerful trends is shaping an urban mobility future inspired by a vision of zero road injuries and low carbon living.

So what do we know about the likely impacts of these auto robots, and how can we shape the future directions and policies to enable their adoption for a safer and more sustainable mobility future?

Road safety – the moral imperative

Nearly 1.2 million people die in road traffic crashes worldwide annually. Imagine 15 full aircrafts, each with a capacity of 200 passengers, disappearing every single day and killing everyone on board! This wouldn't be accepted in air travel and it is shocking that it continues to happen on our roads today. In addition to the pain and suffering, these crashes are estimated to cost countries between 1-3% of their gross national product - more than $500 billion each year globally.

Staggeringly, some 70-90% of motor vehicle crashes are caused at least in part by human error. A large proportion of these accidents could be avoided by using autonomous vehicles and there is considerable logic in removing humans - the key source of distraction and collisions- from the driving equation. As Marc Andreesen, Founder of Netscape and venture capitalist tweeted in 2014: "Self-driving cars and trucks are a moral imperative". Driven by artificial intelligence algorithms, these vehicles will not make errors of judgement the way a human driver does, and they won't take as long to make crucial split-second decisions. That makes them very safe chauffeurs. Take the Google self-driving vehicles as an example: A recent report shows these vehicles have travelled over 1.7 million miles over 6 years and experienced only 11 minor accidents, no injuries. According to the report, not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident!

Car insurance industry

Why buy insurance if automation makes accidents far less likely? "The truth is, if it's a safer way of driving, it's good for society and it's bad for our insurance business," Warrant Buffet said recently when asked about the impact autonomous vehicles may have on his Geico subsidiary. "Anything that cuts accidents by 30%, 40%, 50% would be wonderful, but we won't be holding a party at our insurance company."

Some estimates put the potential reduction in accidents higher than that. A recent study by McKinsey suggests that 90% of all accidents would be prevented as a result of autonomous driving. Other studies have speculated that premiums could be reduced by 75%, especially if drivers are no longer required to get coverage, and liability is shifted from drivers to manufacturers and technology companies. Under this scenario, insurers might move away from covering private customers from risk tied to 'human error' to covering manufacturers and mobility providers against technical failure. A Rand Corporation report  also predicts that drivers might end up covering themselves with health insurance instead of car insurance.

Autonomous mobility on-demand

Is car ownership passé? Research shows that car ownership is increasingly making less sense to many people, especially in urban areas. Consumers are finding it difficult to justify tying up capital in an under-utilised asset that stays idle for 20-22 hours every day. Morgan Stanley's research shows that vehicles in the U.S. are driven just 4% of the year – a big waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year!

Repeated and prolonged driving in congested conditions is also reported as a form of chronic stress and a serious health risk in the long run. Autonomous on-demand car sharing provides a sensible option as a second car for many people and as the trend becomes more widespread, it may also begin to challenge the 'first' car. Furthermore, driverless vehicles would free passengers from the task of driving and provide a personal mobility option to people unable or unwilling to drive. It comes as no surprise then that ride sharing services - like Uber and Lyft, and car ownership-sharing services - like Zipcar and Flexicar, are quickly gaining popularity as an alternative to car ownership and are increasingly paving the way for this market.

Results from recent studies which modelled the impacts of shared autonomous vehicle fleets showed that nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 35% of the cars during  peak hours, and with only 10% of the cars when considering a 24 hour scenario. Other studies have also shown that dynamic ridesharing using autonomous vehicles will increase vehicle utilisation up to 8 hours per day and produce, on average, 26 trips per vehicle per day compared to 3 trips per day for a conventional car in the same model.

Emissions and air pollution

Air pollution is killing us. Research shows that outdoor air pollution contributes to more than 2.5 million deaths worldwide each year. In some countries, transport is estimated as the source of nearly 30% of all emissions responsible for global warming. Autonomous vehicles could be turned into a major positive in the fight against air pollution if they were all-electric, and would have the potential to curb transport emissions and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Google has recently announced plans to roll out a handful of prototype autonomous electric cars in California and it is very likely that most autonomous cars in the future will also be electric.  

New business models

Why is Uber developing a driverless car while Google is looking at the ridesharing model? Why is Apple reportedly gearing up to challenge Telsa in electric cars? And why is Silicon Valley extending its reach into the auto industry? These developments show there's more to the connected electric autonomous car than infotainment. They also signal the beginning of inventions and creation of entire new shared economy businesses that will tap into a new market that could see smart mobility seamlessly integrated in our lives.

Will driverless vehicles destroy the very idea of ownership? 

Who owns a driverless vehicle? Vehicle manufacturers are claiming that since they own the software that runs a connected vehicle, they also own the machine that runs on that program. In comments submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office, they assert that purchasers are only licensing the product and it would be unsafe for them to modify the vehicle programming or even make a repair. The Copyright Office is holding a hearing on the issue in June. If it rules in favour of the manufacturers, it will set a precedent that can change the whole landscape of vehicle ownership

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Not everyone will be excited by this vision and many would disagree that we are at the cusp of a transformation in mobility. Many people still want to drive and not everyone is likely to want to rideshare on a daily basis. Others might argue that more investment in public transport would achieve similar outcomes. Whether you embrace or object to these scenarios, the reality is autonomous vehicles are coming and they will have socio-economic impacts and other effects on our society – some good and some bad. I see them, along with urban transport technologies, as having a major role in delivering new mobility solutions as part of a holistic approach to improve road safety and promote low carbon mobility. The market will ultimately determine whether they can succeed.

What do you think?

Is this the future of urban mobility? I invite you to join the conversation and share your views and insights.