A New World of Possibility

This was one of my favorite opening “hooks” to introduce a chapter that I wrote in my book The Future is Autonomous: The U.S. and China Race to Develop the Driverless Car. This is a chapter devoted to the near-term use cases of autonomous vehicles. It describes a hypothetical situation in which autonomous vehicles are the predominant vehicles on the road and the potential benefits they could have over our current, human-driven vehicle transportation and goods delivery systems.

Imagine a situation in which a man wakes up to his alarm crowing like a rooster. He stumbles out of bed and enters his bathroom to take a shower. While he sits down for breakfast, he gets an alert from an app on his cell phone. The autonomous vehicle has arrived at his house with his dry cleaning. He leaves his house, gives the driverless vehicle a thumbs up to open the trunk, takes out the package with his suit and button-up shirts, gives the vehicle another thumbs up to close the trunk, and returns to his house. He then walks to his bedroom and hangs the clothes in his closet. Recognizing it is time to head to work, he uses another app on his phone to order a shared autonomous vehicle to pick him up.

Five minutes later, he receives another alert from Uber saying his vehicle has arrived. He gulps down the rest of his coffee and walks outside. The door of the van slides open, allowing him to enter. He climbs inside and sits next to a blind man wearing sunglasses with his service dog sitting attentively on the floor in front of him. The van doors automatically close behind him and the van starts driving toward his destination.

He pulls out his computer, connects to the van’s WiFi network, and starts responding to emails to begin his work for the day. On the commute, he glances out the window to see the clear blue sky and the van passes a park filled with lush green trees and shrubs. There is a young girl swinging on a swing set in a playground, pushed by her mother. He recalled when there used to be an ugly multilevel parking lot where the park is now. After about thirty minutes on a commute which previously took over forty-five minutes, the van arrives at the stop near his office. Several other autonomous vehicles sped off in different directions with no need for traffic lights or stop signs. He was ready for a productive day at the office.

With some differences, this hypothetical “snapshot” into the future represents a glimpse of the situation that both these U.S. and China are competing over in the race to develop and lead in the autonomous vehicle industry.

One caveat to the hypothetical scenario that I created is that I have discovered (too late for me to change, unfortunately) that the idea of having no traffic lights or stop signs was floated around in the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry about five years ago. However, now people in the industry want both stoplights and stop signs. This is partly a realization of the reality that AVs will be sharing the road with conventional vehicles for the foreseeable future. Also, not everyone will be driving. Collisions with pedestrians and cyclists is also a serious issue in the U.S. and around the world. Stoplights and stop signs make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists to more safely travel in city streets. Oops, I hope I get a mulligan on this mistake.

AVs can still reduce traffic because there would theoretically be fewer vehicles on the road if people switched to riding in shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) instead of owning their own vehicle. With grocery delivery services like Nuro operating right now, there would be fewer cars on the road because people spend significant amounts of time driving to and from grocery stores. The distance travelled differs depending on a person’s location, but traffic would greatly increase if one Nuro vehicle could carry the groceries of three to five people who would otherwise be driving to and from grocery stores.

Autonomous vehicles could also provide a substantial reduction of global CO2 emissions to combat climate change in the near and long term. An estimated thirty percent of the carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions produced in the US alone come from vehicle exhaust. According to renowned autonomous vehicle advocate Brad Templeton’s website, this figure could be reduced by as much as twelve to fifteen percent. This would be the case if personal car ownership was replaced by shared rides in autonomous “robotaxi” fleets.

Many downtown areas devote 50–60% of their already scarce space to parking structures. Autonomous vehicles would not get rid of this problem entirely, but they have the potential to greatly increase the space devoted to other things. I mentioned a park in my hypothetical, but it could just as easily be a new office building, apartment complex, movie theater, etc.

Many of the benefits of autonomous vehicles presuppose people in the US will choose to ride in a shared “robotaxi.” This might be a difficult transition to make. People in the US have been owning and driving their own vehicles for more than one hundred years.

I spoke with Dr. Yochanan Bigman, postdoctoral research fellow at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His research focuses on issues of machines making moral decisions. He said in his interview, “I think it might make people a bit slower in adopting this new technology, but I don’t think it’s a big barrier.” He continued to say, “I think if people see the benefits, if we have these traffic jams, and we don’t need to worry about parking, and people that die in accidents, and insurance costs will be lower.” While Dr. Bigman agreed acceptance might be lower because of the entrenched driving culture in the US., in n the end, he feels the benefits of shared rides in autonomous vehicles would win people over. Only time will tell if he is right.

While this problem may be more pronounced in the U.S. because of our long history of owning and driving our own vehicles, it will be an issue that the U.S., China, and every other country will need to deal with. Changing people’s consumer patterns will not be easy and it will not happen overnight. Stay tuned for more on what other problems people might face in consumer acceptance of AVs!

If you would like to read more about this exciting new technology, here are the links to purchase a copy of the book, The Future is Autonomous: The U.S. and China Race to Develop the Driverless Car! There is a special promotional price on the Amazon Kindle eBook version for only 99 cents until December 31st, so get it now while it’s on sale! Please also rate and review the book on Amazon!

Please also rate and review my book on Amazon! It would mean a lot!

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