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Self-driving cars good for environment

Nils Zimmermann
April 25, 2016

By 2025, self-driving cars could lead to a steep decline in fossil fuels - and in personal car ownership. Smart electric vehicles will pick you up, drop you off, and mostly look after themselves. A realistic scenario?

Google's self-driving car prototype is well advanced technically
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Google

In 2014, in the USA alone, cars traveled an estimated 2,926 billion miles (4,740 billion kilometers) - not always safely. During that year, 32,675 people lost their lives in traffic accidents, and a much larger number were injured.

This meant around $200 billion (175 billion euros) in insurance claims and another $670 billion of uncompensated losses in pain and suffering, lost work-time, damaged gear, emergency services costs and other economic losses, according to figures from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"That works out to about 29.6 cents per mile," said Brad Templeton, a Canadian expert on autonomous vehicles, who was in Berlin for the Singularity University Germany Summit. That's more than two and a half times what people spend on fuel per mile on average, given US gasoline prices of $2.14 a gallon.

"Cars are a huge health and environmental hazard, and accidents generate enormous costs. But that's going to change, because robots don't drink and drive, they don't turn into seniors with slow reflexes, and they don't screw up because of inexperience. They're going to drive incomparably more safely than people can."

ARS Elektronik Messe Linz: An electric motorbike
Electric motorbikes could be self-driving too eventually, and likely a lot less deadly. We're not there yet: This electric bike is a human-steered modelImage: Kerry Skyring

Self-driving cars are also going to be a lot quieter, use up significantly less land, and save billions of person-hours each year, because they won't need us to drive them, Templeton said.

And they're going to cause far less air pollution. Templeton estimated that the shift to self-driving vehicles will eventually reduce US carbon emissions by 200 million tons of CO2 per year, and eliminate other forms of urban air pollution caused by fossil fuel cars, such as nitrous oxides.

Flexible mobility future

It's a Tuesday morning in 2025. You're standing on the sidewalk in front of your apartment building, sipping coffee from your foldable aluminum carry-cup. You're on your way to a meeting at a client's office. You called up your ride less than two minutes ago. It quietly pulls up right in front of you.

"It might be a battery-powered closed-shell tricycle, with separately banking wheels for optimal stability," said Templeton. "You're not going to own it. You probably don't own a car – you buy passenger-miles, not cars or motorbikes, and you call up whatever sort of vehicle you need at a given time."

Right now you need something light and fast that'll get you to work. You don't need four wheels or several tons of steel or aluminum that'll just waste energy, cost more to rent per kilometer, and run a higher risk of getting stuck in traffic.

The trike's door folds open. You throw your bag in the back, put on your VR (virtual reality) glasses to catch up on the 3D-holoprojected news on the 30-minute ride to your client's office, and relax.

ARS Elektronik Messe Linz: Three wheeled person mover
All kinds of three-wheeled electric vehicles will appear on the market for urban transport gadgetsImage: Kerry Skyring

When you get to your destination, your ride automatically debits your transit account and shows you the amount. It already recorded who you are from the RFID chip in the smartwallet parked on your left wrist, where your grandpa kept a wristwatch. You verify the transaction by thumbprint.

Space efficiency

After you exit the trike, it may go directly to pick up another passenger, guided by a central automated dispatching system. Or it may go to the nearest cleaning station, or find a recharging post and load up its battery. In any event, the system it's connected to has plenty of data on where it's most likely to be needed next, so that's where it'll go.

During off-peak hours when it's not needed, the trike goes to a multi-storey car park designed to pack vehicles very tightly. People never need to enter or exit vehicles in those parks, so they're very space-efficient - just racks of vehicles, no frills.

"Depending on whether or not you count road verges, today there are between three and eight parking spaces for each car. Los Angeles is 60 percent paved over. When the time comes that most cars on the road are autonomous vehicles, a lot of that land will be freed up for other uses," Templeton said.

Three wheeled rikshaw
This three-wheeled rickshaw is powered the old-fashioned way. This trike is an obvious candidate for battery-powerImage: Imago

Automated delivery

Your best friend messages you, proposing a squash game after work. You've left your sports gear at home, so you message your neighbor Rhonda, asking her to go into your apartment to pack your squash things - the sort of favor you trade with her frequently. Your door knows her iris pattern and thumbprint, so she has access.

Rhonda calls up a courier service, which sends along a little six-wheeled battery-powered buggy the size of a large suitcase from one of the racks it maintains nearby . She puts your sports bag inside, locks it with her thumbprint, and sends it along to your gym. You have a joint account, so when the buggy arrives, you'll be able to unlock it with your thumbprint.

Pack-buggies can follow a RFID tag in your pocket. They can follow you around all day if you like, or they can be sent to a destination of your choice. They can even climb stairs. Your days of schlepping heavy burdens around are a distant memory. Hardly anyone does that anymore. Why would they, when autonomous pack-buggies are ubiquitously available for rent at a minor cost?

This isn't science fiction. Brad Templeton is involved with a startup based in the Baltics that is currently developing six-wheeled self-driving pack-buggies. The founders expect pizza delivery services to be among the first big use cases.

Longer trips can be petrol-free too

On the weekend, you and three friends travel 300 km to the beach. You rent an electric-powered VW minivan. It has no steering wheel, no center console - it has nothing much inside except some very comfortable seats and a good speaker system.

Hannover CeBIT Byke Board
A "hoverboard", the Byke Board, displayed at Hanover's CeBIT trade fair in March 2016. The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributedImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

"Car companies today build cars with a bunch of computers in them. Companies like Google or Apple are getting into the self-driving vehicle business, and they'll be building computers with wheels," Templeton said.

Even if you and your friends go on a long road trip of a couple of thousand kilometers, and want to travel at battery-draining high speeds, in a world of autonomous electric vehicles you needn't turn to petrol-power. If you didn't want to spend the time stopping for battery recharges, you could simply swap either batteries or vans every couple of hundred kilometers. Let the system know a little bit in advance that you'll need to swap, and there'll be a replacement waiting for you in a convenient location before your rented van runs out of juice. The system, networked and interconnected, will make sure of it.

If you're feeling lazy, you could even have your travelling van carry your gear on board in automated buggies equipped with folding legs as well as wheels and a seat, like the ones old folks will use to get around in their houses. They'll follow you anywhere. If there are places they can't roll, they'll walk.

No gasoline or diesel-powered engine appears anywhere in this scenario. At least in the passenger vehicle sector, Templeton said, the fossil fuel age will fade out rather sooner than most people expect.

Self-driving cars: look out for one at your front door sometime pretty soon.

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