The driverless car is more than transportation technology.

I’m hoping to write a few pieces on design in the coming days. I’ll warn you now that one of them will be about toilets, so … urm … prepare yourself, I guess? Anyway, back to today’s theme: the driverless car. I wanted to talk about it because it’s a great example of what technology could do, not in terms of just doing something useful but in terms of changing how we think. I’m going to look at some of the changes that might happen. No doubt many of you will have ideas and some of you will disagree so I’ll wait to see what shows up in the comments.

Humans have been around for quite a long time but, surprisingly given how prominent they are in our lives, cars have only been around for 120 years in the form that we know them – gasoline/diesel engines, suspension and smaller-than-buggy wheels. And yet our lives are, in many ways, built around them. Our cities bend and stretch in strange ways to accommodate roads, tunnels, overpasses and underpasses. Ask anyone who has driven through Atlanta, Georgia, where an Interstate of near-infinite width can be found running from Peachtree & Peachtree to Peachtree, Peachtree, Peachtree and beyond!

But what do we think of when we think of cars? We think of transportation. We think of going where we want, when we want. We think of using technology to compress travel time and this, for me, is a classic human technological perspective because we are love to amplify. Cars make us faster. Computers allow us to add up faster. Guns help us to kill better.

So let’s say we get driverless cars and, over time, the majority of cars on the road are driverless. What does this mean? Well, if you look at road safety stats and the WHO reports, you’ll see that about up 40% of traffic fatalities can be straight line accidents (these figures from the Victorian roads department, 2006-2013). That is, people just drive off a straight road and kill themselves. The leading killers overall are alcohol, fatigue, and speed. Driverless cars will, in one go, remove all of these. Worldwide, a million people per year just stopped dying.

But it’s not just transportation. In America, commuting to work eats up from 35-65 hours of your year. If you live in DC, you spend two weeks every year cursing the Beltway. And it’s not as if you can easily work in your car so those are lost hours. That’s not enjoyable driving! That’s hours of frustration, wasted fuel, exposure to burning fuel, extra hours you have to work. The fantasy of the car is driving a convertible down the Interstate in the sunshine, listening to rock, and singing along. The reality is inching forward with the windows up in a 10 year old Nissan family car while stuck between FM stations and having to listen to your second iPod because the first one’s out of power. And it’s the joke one that only has Weird Al on it.

Enter the driverless car. Now you can do some work but there’s no way that your commute will be as bad anyway because we can start to do away with traffic lights and keep the traffic moving. You’ll be there for less time but you can do more. Have a sleep if you want. Learn a language. Do a MOOC! Winning!

Why do I think it will be faster? Every traffic light has a period during which no-one is moving. Why? Because humans need clear signals and need to know what other drivers are doing. A driverless car can talk to other cars and they can weave in and out of the traffic signals. Many traffic jams are caused by people hitting the brakes and then people arrive at this braking point faster than people are leaving. There is no need for this traffic jam and, with driverless cars, keeping distance and speed under control is far easier. Right now, cars move like ice through a vending machine. We want them to move like water.

How will you work in your car? Why not make every driverless car a wireless access point using mesh networking? Now the more cars you get together, the faster you can all work. The I495 Beltway suddenly becomes a hub of activity rather than a nightmare of frustration. (In a perfect world, aliens come to Earth and take away I495 as their new emperor, leaving us with matter transporters, but I digress.)

But let’s go further. Driverless cars can have package drops in them. The car that picks you up from work has your Amazon parcels in the back. It takes meals to people who can’t get out. It moves books around.

But let’s go further. Make them electric and put some of Elon’s amazing power cells into them and suddenly we have a power transportation system if we can manage the rapid charge/discharge issues. Your car parks in the city turn into repair and recharge facilities for fleets of driverless cars, charging from the roof solar and wind, but if there’s a power problem, you can send 1000 cars to plug into the local grid and provide emergency power.

We still need to work out some key issues of integration: cyclists, existing non-converted cars and pedestrians are the first ones that come to mind. But, in my research group, we have already developed passive localisation that works on a scale that could easily be put onto cars so you know when someone is among the cars. Combine that with existing sensors and all a cyclist has to do is to wear a sensor (non-personalised, general scale and anonymised) that lets intersections know that she is approaching and the cars can accommodate it. Pedestrians are slow enough that cars can move around them. We know that they can because slow humans do it often enough!

We start from ‘what could we do if we produced a driverless car’ and suddenly we have free time, increased efficiency and the capacity to do many amazing things.

Now, there are going to be protests. There are going to be people demanding their right to drive on the road and who will claim that driverless cars are dangerous. There will be anti-robot protests. There already have been. I expect that the more … freedom-loving states will blow up a few of these cars to make a point. Anyone remember the guy waving a red flag who had to precede every automobile? It’s happened before. It will happen again.

We have to accept that there are going to be deaths related to this technology, even if we plan really hard for it not to happen, and it may be because of the technology or it may be because of opposing human action. But cars are already killing so may people. 1.2 million people died on the road in 2010, 36,000 from America. We have to be ready for the fact that driverless cars are a stepping stone to getting people out of the grind of the commute and making much better use of our cities and road spaces. Once we go driverless we need to look at how many road accidents aren’t happening, and address the issues that still cause accidents in a driverless example.

Understand the problem. Measure what’s happening. Make a change. Measure again. Determine the impact.

When we think about keeping the manually driven cars on the road, we do have a precedent. If you look at air traffic, the NTSB Accidents and Accident Rates by NTSB Classification 1998-2007 report tells us that the most dangerous type of flying is small private planes, which are more than 5 times more likely to have an accident than commercial airliners. Maybe it will be the insurance rates or the training required that will reduce the private fleet? Maybe they’ll have overrides. We have to think about this.

It would be tempting to say “why still have cars” were it not for the increasingly ageing community, those people who have several children and those people who have restricted mobility, because they can’t just necessarily hop on a bike or walk. As someone who has had multiple knee surgeries, I can assure you that 100m is an insurmountable distance sometimes – and I used to run 45km up and down mountains. But what we can do is to design cities that work for people and accommodate the new driverless cars, which we can use in a much quieter, efficient and controlled manner.

Vehicles and people can work together. The Denver area, Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich and Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne are three simple examples where electric trams move through busy pedestrian areas. Driverless cars work like trams – or they can. Predictable, zoned and controlled. Better still, for cyclists, driverless cars can accommodate sharing the road much more easily although, as noted, there may still be some issues for traffic control that will need to be ironed out.

It’s easy to look at the driverless car as just a car but this is missing all of the other things we could be doing. This is just one example where the replacement of something ubiquitous that might just change the world for the better.


One Comment on “The driverless car is more than transportation technology.”

  1. […] have been following the discussion about the ethics of the driverless car with some interest. This is close to a contemporary restatement of the infamous trolley […]

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