Navigant Research Blog

Google’s Autonomous Vehicle Crashes Are Misunderstood

— May 18, 2015

There’s been a fair amount of coverage in the media around the 11 reported accidents with Google’s autonomous vehicles. While some headlines about self-driving cars crashing may confuse the public about the merits of autonomous vehicle safety, the facts on the 11 accidents should ease any cause for worry: all of the 11 minor accidents were a result of driver error (from drivers of other vehicles) and had nothing to do with the autonomous vehicle functionality.

Seven of the accidents reportedly involved another vehicle rear-ending Google’s car, two were sideswipes from other vehicles, and a car running a red light was the cause of another. This information helps confirm what we already know: 94% of accidents are attributed to human error, and autonomous vehicles offer drastically improved safety capabilities that are expected to reduce the number of accidents on the road by enormous proportions. With 360-degree visibility; 100% attention in all directions at all times; and sensors keeping track of other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians out to a distance of nearly two football fields, autonomous vehicles use much safer and more advanced driving techniques than humans—and they won’t ever be caught texting at the wheel.

Accident Rates

Google released figures on the accident rates for their autonomous vehicles to clear up any confusion that may have been going on in the media: there have been 11 accidents in over 1.7 million miles of driving over the course of 6 years. While this is actually higher than the national average of 0.3 damaging incidents per 100,000 miles, Google has noted that the higher rates are largely due to the company’s full reporting of accidents, a practice most drivers ignore. Most importantly, director of Google’s self-driving program Chris Urmson has said that not once was the self-driving vehicle the actual cause of the accident. Thus, the at-fault accident rate for Google’s autonomous vehicles’ through nearly 2 million miles of driving is 0%.

Benefits of Automation

Autonomous vehicles have benefits that extend far beyond fewer traffic accidents. In early 2015, the International Transport Forum at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report titled Urban Mobility System Upgrade: How shared self-driving cars could change city traffic. This report found that autonomous vehicles could provide the same mobility we have now (using a mid-sized European city as an example) with just 10% of the cars. Additionally, a network of autonomous vehicles could completely remove the need for on-street parking spaces while also removing 80% of off-street parking, opening vast new public and private opportunities for alternative uses of valuable city space. Considering that driver error accounts for the vast majority of vehicle accidents and Google’s autonomous cars have racked up a total of zero at-fault accidents over the course of 6 years of driving, it’s clear that the potential long-term benefits of autonomous vehicles are well worth the associated risks—even if there were one or two accidents in the process.


E-Bikes Take Center Stage at Colorado Bike Expo

— May 14, 2015

The Colorado Bike Expo on April 25 showcased the latest products in the industry to kick off the fresh 2015 cycling season. The event, held at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, had around 100 exhibitors. The presence of electric bicycle (e-bike) manufacturers and distributors at bicycle events like the Expo has grown substantially over the last few years as interest in the technology continues to grow at a rapid pace.

Improving Technology

Several notable improvements have been made to 2015 e-bike models over previous years. The range capabilities provided by e-bike batteries have dramatically improved, with most models at the event providing a lengthy 40–60 miles of range per charge. Previous e-bike models generally had a range of 15–25 miles. The weight of the bikes has also dropped, making them easier to ride, transport, and store. 2015 models generally weigh between 40 and 45 lbs, while models just a year or two ago typically weighed between 50 and 55 lbs. Additionally, a new model from Pedego allows the e-bike to be charged directly from an outlet, eliminating the need to remove the battery from the bicycle before charging.

Upgrades have been made on the software side as well. Some e-bike models are now Bluetooth compatible and can connect with a riders’ smartphone. The rider can customize and save the pedal-assist power settings of the e-bike to avoid having to reprogram the settings each time the bike is turned on and off. New safety and security features have also been added through this new level of connectivity. If a rider believes their e-bike has been stolen, a press of a button on their smartphone instantly locks the bike in place and a GPS tracker shows the rider the exact location of the bicycle. While some new advances in the regular bicycle market were also showcased (such as ultra-lightweight models), e-bikes stole the show in terms of technology capabilities.

Future Outlook

Navigant Research’s Electric Bicycles report forecasts that annual sales of e-bikes in North America are expected to rise from 179,000 in 2015 to nearly 300,000 by 2023. Longer electric range, reduced vehicle weight, and advanced software capabilities are all helping to move the market in this high-growth direction. Steadily reducing lithium ion battery costs left most e-bike representatives at the Expo believing that the cost difference between similar quality bicycles and e-bikes will be negligible in just 2–3 years.


Hyperloop Glides toward Reality in California

— May 11, 2015

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. has struck a deal with landowners in central California to build the first hyperloop test track in the world. The track will encompass a 5-mile stretch near the busy Interstate 5 highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea for a hyperloop as a mode of transportation was popularized by Elon Musk in his 57-page white paper released to the public in 2013. Musk’s vision is a system that is cheaper and operates much more cleanly than California’s proposed high-speed rail while propelling passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes.

Hyperloop systems use magnets and fans to push passenger pods through depressurized tubes at very high speeds. While Musk imagined a system that operates at close to 800 mph, the pilot project (expected to break ground in early 2016) will test at a much more modest 200 mph to demonstrate proof of concept and to conduct additional testing on safety. About 100 miles of track is needed in order to reach the 800 mph speed. Nevertheless, this trial is undoubtedly a huge step forward for the hyperloop industry and comes sooner than most expected.

But at What Cost?

The 5-mile pilot project is estimated to cost about $100 million to build, with most of the funding expected to come from an initial public offering (IPO) by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies later this year. With a 400-mile distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this system would cost about $8 billion to make the full trip between cities (assuming the costs of building the track and pods stay the same). This is still far lower than the expected costs of California’s high-speed rail, which comes in at a whopping $67.6 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Working out the Kinks

While hyperloop technology offers tremendous potential for unprecedented low-cost, high-speed transportation, there are still some major hurdles for the industry to overcome. Development costs are expected to be very high for this technology, and those costs are not factored into the $8 billion estimate (considers manufacturing costs only). In order to continue developing the pods, capsules, and tubes to become commercially viable, this industry will need considerable cash.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is the nature of the technology itself. Transporting human beings through capsules at nearly 800 mph has yet to be proven a safe venture, and efforts to reduce the potentially nauseating effects will need to be worked out. Whether or not solar panels on the tubes would generate enough electricity to power the propulsion system is another concern of skeptics, such as Roger Goodall, a maglev train expert and a professor of control systems engineering at the United Kingdom’s Loughborough University. For now, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies looks to prove the doubters wrong; thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long to see the results.


Uber Expanding into Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

— April 7, 2015

Since Uber’s creation in 2009, the adoption of the company’s mobile app-based transportation service has exploded and the service is now available in 56 countries and over 200 cities worldwide. In fact, it was recently reported that there are now more Uber cars than yellow cabs in New York City. With nearly $3 billion in total funding raised by 2015, Uber is looking to expand its business into the growing electric vehicle (EV) and autonomous vehicle markets.

Offering local customers emissions-free transportation options, Uber has partnered with BYD to provide electric e6 taxis in Chicago. Uber drivers have the option to rent the e6 taxis from the Green Wheels USA dealership for $200 a week, and Uber customers will be able to choose an EV through the smartphone app when booking a vehicle. This new option gives users added flexibility in their riding choices, and more cities around the United States can expect Uber EVs as an option in the near term.

So Long, Driver

Likely to be more disruptive than the introduction of EVs, autonomous vehicles could have a much more notable impact on Uber’s business. In February 2015, Uber announced that it is setting up a laboratory in Pittsburgh to develop self-driving technology. In partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the company will reportedly be developing the core autonomous technology, the vehicles, and associated infrastructure at the Pittsburgh facility. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has stated in the past that he would gladly replace human drivers with a self-driving fleet of vehicles, as Uber drivers reportedly take home about 75% of every fare.

Beyond massive savings on costs for Uber, and potentially its customers, autonomous vehicles would make Uber a much safer service—not just in terms of smoother running vehicles with (likely) fewer accidents, but also in terms of the well-being of the passengers. Uber has come under intense scrutiny as of late, as accusations of assaults on passengers by Uber drivers have come from numerous customers from a variety of countries. While Uber does conduct background checks on its drivers, prosecutors in California are suing the company for alleged exaggeration regarding the rigor of its background checks.

Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, projects that globally, close to half of all new vehicles sold in 2035 will have some form of autonomous driving capability installed. Uber may have autonomous vehicles on the road even sooner, which would go a long way toward ensuring safer driving and safer environments for customers who would no longer have to consider the possibility of a dangerous driver.


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