Cleantech Market Intelligence
Autonomous Vehicles Provide Benefits, Raise Questions
My research for the new Navigant Research report on autonomous vehicles made it clear that:
- The technology is pretty much ready to go now.
- The timing of vehicle introductions is going to depend primarily on legislation changes.
- The benefits of widespread implementation are going to be huge.
International driving is governed at the highest level by the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which essentially states that every vehicle must have a driver who is able to control it at all times. This does not prevent the introduction of autonomous features, such as driver assistance, but it does prohibit self-driving vehicles that transport people who can’t drive and vehicles that deliver themselves or their contents without a qualified driver on board.
Countries, states, and municipalities that embrace autonomous vehicle technology and push through legislation quickly will encourage a major shift in personal mobility over time. It seems to be a case of not if but when this happens, though the development of autonomous vehicles could be prevented if laws are not updated to allow these vehicles on the roads. In that case, there is the potential for some regions to fall behind others in reaping the benefits of self-driving vehicles.
And what are these potential benefits?
Safety: Vehicles with controls receiving input from electronic sensors (e.g., cameras and radar) do not run into the back of other vehicles, drift out of lanes, or run off the road. They also do not exceed speed limits. Once the technology is proven to be safe and reliable in practice with large numbers of vehicles, autonomous vehicles could be permitted to travel faster than vehicles piloted by human drivers. This feature could serve as an incentive to buy and use the systems.
Efficiency: On freeways, vehicles driven by adaptive cruise control can maintain a constant distance without speed fluctuations and thereby result in smoother traffic flow and fewer shock waves that cause traffic jams. Smoother flowing traffic uses less energy, and because roads are used more efficiently, the need to widen existing infrastructure or build new roads is reduced.
Ownership: Carsharing is already becoming a popular option for people who live in cities, but presently it’s only a practical alternative to owning a car if you live near a place where these vehicles are parked most of the time. However, if the vehicle drove itself to you whenever you needed it, perhaps more people would choose this option. Not having to pay for parking is a good incentive, and carsharing has the potential to replace taxicabs, at least in cities. If everyone shared a pool of vehicles, it would reduce the total amount of parking spaces required, as well.
A Crash Shortage
These benefits will be enhanced by V2X (vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure) communications that let vehicles communicate electronically with each other and the infrastructure. The downside is that there will be fewer jobs for taxi and delivery drivers – and potentially emergency service workers and hospital staff, too, if the number of automobile crash casualties drops dramatically. Some have suggested that a drastic cut in vehicle accidents would introduce some interesting ethical dilemmas, as well. There will also be fewer vehicles on the roads. Yet, self-driving vehicles will work much harder than those that today spend 95% of their time parked, so their lifetime will be shorter.
Cities that want to be the first to benefit from more efficient and safer traffic would do well to push for autonomous vehicle licensing as soon as possible.