Autonomous Vehicles Arrive In 3 Years, In 3 Stages

Autonomous vehicles will be in wide use in as little as three years, slipping into traffic before transportation departments and disrupted industries have a chance to prepare, experts said in Chicago today.
"The majority of people I talk to have no idea they're coming so soon," said Lauren Issac, manager of sustainable transportation for the engineering and planning firm Parsons Brinkerhoff.
As Isaac discussed autonomous vehicles with other experts at the National Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago, a scenario unfolded of how driverless cars may emerge in the U.S.— with the potential to save up to a trillion dollars and a gigaton of carbon emissions.
1. Robo-Taxis And Driverless Freight
Isaac believes autonomous trucks will appear first on the highways, hauling freight for companies that cannot resist avoiding the cost, inefficiency, maintenance, liability and loss that they incur now because of human drivers.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, which has studied autonomous vehicles as a route to reduced carbon emissions, concurs.
"Our research indicates that the first thing that's going to roll out, she's probably right, will be level-three freight, some kind of trucks going across our highways," said Jonathan Walker of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
"In the cities it's going to be Robo-Taxis, and it's going to be sooner than we think. In three years we're going to see some kind of automated taxi service, probably in the Bay Area, maybe in Austin."
If the traditional cab companies don't leap to autonomous cabs, the disrupters will.
"Uber is chomping at the bit to bring autonomous vehicles on," Isaac said, "so they don't have to deal with all their employee issues."
Will autonomous taxis be affordable? With lower overhead, it's likely. And some rides may be free.
"What if the bar or the restaurant or Walmart or Target, they pay for your trip? because they're essentially using these vehicles to bring customers to them," Walker said, "so you might actually see free robo-taxis in three years."
2. Commute Services
"Next. I won't break out any names, but you're going to see the tech leaders who specialize in consumer experience very interested in getting high-end people to and from their jobs in luxurious autonomous vehicles," Walker said.
Apple? Tesla?
"The business models make the most sense if these vehicles are shared, and the tech companies in the Silicon Valley who specialize in consumer adoption are going to figure out a way to get people with money to give up their personal vehicles and take a shared autonomous vehicle too."
This will probably occur between 2020 and 2025, Walker predicts, when those services have matured. Then the masses get on board:
3. Full System
The next stage, according to Walker, is a fully built automated system, mobility on demand, in which people can request an automated vehicle whenever they need one.
"2030 comes and you've got these fully bloomed systems where I request an autonomous airstream to go the mountains with my buddies, I request the one-seat to go to the city, I request a 10-seat because I want it to be free or subsidized, and I don't use any cars anymore.
"So that's probably the 2030-2035 scenario, and that's the way we see it unrolling."
Economics will drive the success of autonomous vehicles, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, because of a suite of financial advantages.
Autonomous vehicles cost about 15 cents per mile to operate, compared to 60 cents for personal cars. They're cheaper because they can be shared, eliminating purchases, parking spaces, and idle time. most cars are idle 95 percent of the time, Walker said.
Automated vehicles are less likely to suffer damage or get into the 82 percent of accidents that occur because of driver error. For commercial and public vehicles, the drivers represent the system's greatest cost, Walker said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation illuminated some of those costs when it experimented with an automated bus.
"What it did for us was some amazing things," said Jeffrey Spencer, a program manager with USDOT. "We found that the bus no longer has the tires rub against the curb. It doesn't knock the wheel alignment off. It doesn't collide with the platform, and on a 60-foot articulated bus, it put all passengers within one inch of the platform. So people could get on and off the bus very easily. We've not only reduced the maintenance cost, we've reduced the liability cost.
"And because of its precision, and it comes to the same spot every time, we were able to keep that bus on time most of the time, and reduce the amount of capital expense. We didn't have to buy another bus to meet the demand because we were able to move that bus in a more precise and proficient manner."
The insurance for automated vehicles should be about 10 percent what insurance costs motorists today, Walker said, and vehicles can be right-sized for their tasks: people can order a pickup truck for buying gardening supplies, a single-seater for the drive to work, a shuttle to go to the airport, a bus when they want to save money.
Because of their efficient use of road space, Walker said, they will free up lanes equivalent to five times the highway infrastructure we have today.
A different scenario, described by panelists as "the nightmare scenario" emerges if autonomous vehicles cling to the current transportation model—individually owned and gasoline powered. Then some of the problems they might solve—parking, congestion, pollution—get worse.
Many questions remain. How will the insurance industry react? What will become of filling stations? The oil industry? Will autonomous vehicles compete with transit systems or take them over? How will pedestrians and bicyclists interact? And:
"When the Apple car is deployed," asked Spencer, "will it have Windows?"

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