There's A Car In Your Future, But You May Not Own Or Drive It

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It’s not a new idea—the automated car—but it’s not everyday that it’s embraced by an engineer who has already changed automotive technology.
“We drove in a Prius from Mountain View to Burlingame, California,” said Bill Reinert, the mechanical engineer who led the Toyota Prius design team. “No big deal, up the 101, 70 miles an hour in the middle lane—except nobody was driving.
"It was an autonomous vehicle. It was the first time I’ve driven in a driverless car.”
Rienert told that story excitedly yesterday to open his appearance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business's 59th Annual Management Conference:
They’re getting damn good, and the car’s so fun. You drive it hands on or hands off. Drive it like cruise control, and it trains itself on the routes you take.
"I was shocked, shocked to see how good that was. And if you think about what’s happening, we’re not going to build highways anymore in America. I don’t think so. We’re not going to build the infrastructure, but cars are going to grow, which means congestion’s going to grow.
"And we don’t have the infrastructure to put in mass transit, it’s very expensive to do that, so we have to look at other ways: we have to look at distributed mass transit and we have to look at autonomous vehicles."
Although Reinert designed the Prius, Google engineers designed its autonomy. They outfitted a Prius with video cameras, radar sensors, a laser range finder, and maps. As the car collects data about its surroundings, it connects to Google's data centers, which process the data and steer the car. Google announced last fall it had been driving cars robotically all over California:
We have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.
In a country that can no longer afford to build interstate highways or fixed-rail systems that take people everywhere they need to go—not just from suburb to city, but from suburb to suburb—Reinert believes an automated vehicle system is on the way:
If I can put a distance between cars, you don’t have that standing wave effect, you know, you put on the brakes, and the person behind you puts on the brakes and you get the standing wave effect, and that thing continues for an hour. If I can platoon my cars, I can take all the reaction time out of it. And these cars see way up ahead much better than humans do, with all the cameras on them, its’ pretty neat.
And there’s nothing, nothing on that car that’s unique that we have to build or reinvent again—unobtainium or cryptonium or kryptonite, none of that. We don’t have to do that.
Whether or not cars are driven by humans or robots, they'll be increasingly owned by corporations, Reinert predicted.
Toyota plans to embark on a subscription-driven car sharing service, he announced.
"We're working with a partner I can't discuss right now," Reinert said, and then let slip the name of one: "It'll be a subscription service, but it won't be your car to own or take home. There'll be a Zipcar area—It won't necessarily be Zipcar, but it'll be a car-sharing kind of managed thing."
In addition to Zipcar, Hertz has a new car-sharing service called Connect, and Avis has pioneered a car sharing service in the UK called CARvenience. Volkswagen announced last week it will pilot its own system, Quicar, in Hanover.
Toyota has designed a tiny, inexpensive electric car—the FT-EV—for use in the car sharing service. "Car sharing’s growing. We think it’s really cool," Reinert said.
Car sharing has been enabled by smart phones, Reinert said. If you can carry an airline boarding pass as an image on a smart phone, he said, you ought to be able to use a smart phone or iPad to board the train, then pick up a shared car at the train station and drive home, with all the scheduling and billing handled quietly in the background.
"This is going to change everything," he said. "All that's coming down the road."
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