Imagine with me for a minute the Driverless City. One where humans are whisked away in capsules to be transported to their desired destination while not having to worry about the hassles of navigating the roads or watching out for other drivers or maintaining their vehicles. Transportation is bliss.
Some of the benefits that have been imagined seem pretty surreal.
- There are no more traffic jams because the vehicles’ computers optimize traffic flow through a huge network of interconnected sensors.
- People will be free to use their commuting time to work, watch movies, or even exercise in the back of a driverless vehicle.
- Massive parking facilities are no longer needed in urban centers because the vehicles will no longer sit idle for the majority of the day since they can be summoned onto the next task once the rider exits the vehicle.
- Rides can be called up by simply hitting a few buttons on your smart device and you can be picked up no matter where you are and no matter where you want to go. This will be something akin to a robotic version of Uber
- There will be no need to own a vehicle. Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer with SENSEable City Lab at MIT, says studies indicate that sharing of driverless vehicles could result in “a city in which everyone can travel on demand with just one-fifth of the number of cars in use today.”
- Human error accounts for 93% of crashes which can be eliminated once only driverless vehicles are allowed.
- Vehicles can be used to transport goods during the non-peak overnight hours eliminating the need for bulky & cumbersome UPS & FedEx trucks.
- Shops might be outfitted to handle automated pickups of products, so that people could send driverless vehicles to pick up their pharmacy prescriptions or dry cleaning.
I’m sure there are many other benefits being floated around cyberspace, but could this be the most important transformational change in a century? At the University of Michigan, researchers are actually testing some of these activities. They have transformed 32 acres in Ann Arbor, Michigan into a radically different metropolis. According to the university’s website, “Mcity simulates the broad range of complexities vehicles encounter in urban and suburban environments. It includes approximately five lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights, and obstacles such as construction barriers. Mcity celebrated its grand opening on July 20, 2015 with representatives from government, industry, & the university.”
Here is a video created to show you what they’re doing.
Google has been the leader in testing driverless vehicles. Over the last 6 years Google has put 20 driverless vehicles to the test on more than 1.7 million miles (currently averaging over 10,000 miles per week). Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving program, recently blogged about their experience. “If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”
This is all pretty cool to imagine, but my question…is this too good to be true? Before we get too excited about driverless vehicles, let’s consider some of the obstacles that must be overcome.
Google states that the accidents that their vehicles have been involved in were caused by human driver error. I understand that humans make errors, but we also drive by using the “human element” which isn’t always cut and dry to all of the rules of the road. Unless we remove all human drivers from the road at the same time and replace them with driverless vehicles, aren’t we going to have a combination of driverless vehicles and human driver vehicles? Are we going to outlaw human drivers? Are driverless vehicles programmed to drive TOO cautiously? Successfully integrating autonomous vehicles into the chaotic & reactive driving environment of human-dominated roads will be an impressive achievement — and we’re not there yet.
What about the last mile of the trip? Won’t this be the most complicated portion of all? Logistically this portion will require more engineering creativity than the rest of the trip. Since the vehicles won’t be parking in a parking lot, how are we going to manage the drop off of every rider? Our streets aren’t currently adapted to handle the volume of vehicles dropping off pedestrian traffic at a building’s entrance. I can imagine future development having multiple entrances on all sides of buildings and even underground entrances, but this will take a massive developmental effort to accomplish.
In the end, I think the future is going to be full of driverless vehicles and the benefits outweigh the obstacles. How we get there is the biggest question mark for me. Intermingling driverless traffic with the current human-dominated roadways is going to be a massive hurdle that will require support from all levels of government, constituents, and developers alike. There is no way for any of us to really know how fast these changes will come about, but we must be ready to help create the solutions that are necessary.
About the Author: David Carpenter
I am an experienced Commercial Real Estate Advisor with a mission to create wealth for investors through Commercial Real Estate. However, I am also a family man! With 3 kids at home, I spend most of my spare time with my wife and kids supporting them in the things that they love. I like to mix in a little fishing, gardening, refinishing furniture, reading, and watching the Spurs whenever I get a chance.