Shared autonomous vehicles could increase urban space by 15 percent

A recent UK study has looked at the transformative implications of self-driving vehicles on cities. The authors found that shared autonomous vehicles could increase available urban space by 15 to 20 percent, largely through the elimination of parking spaces. Today central London has about 6.8 million parking spaces and a parking coverage of around 16%! Many large cities have even larger coverage ratios for parking space of up to 30%. Freeing up this space would make our cities greener, increase quality of life and also create the potential for additional housing.

Autonomous vehicles will also make the rural communities more attractive because shared travel to nearby cities becomes widely available, affordable and does not lead to loss of productive time.

The authors also consider autonomous vehicle only development areas and highways that are limited to autonomous vehicles. This could reduce costs as lane markings and signage would no longer be needed, the lanes could be narrower and throughput per lane would be higher.

Overall the authors from a cooperation between professional services firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff and architect planners Farrells conclude that autonomous vehicles will be transformational:  Future mobility may be headed to a shared pay-as-you-go transport system. The study provides many key points which infrastructure planners and legislators need to consider!

Source: “Making better places: Autonomous vehicles and future opportunities“, 2016 by WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Farrells

Accident rates of self-driving cars: A critique of the Sivak/Schoettle study

To what degree are self-driving cars likely to reduce accidents and traffic deaths? This is a very important but very hard question which has implications for testing, insurance, regulations and governments considering to accelerate or delay the introduction of autonomous cars. Now two researchers, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan have examined this problem in a short study titled “Road safety with self-driving vehicles: General limitations and road sharing with conventional vehicles and arrived at four conclusions which – when read carefully – provide little insight into the problem but when read casually seem to raise doubts about the expectation that self-driving cars will be significantly safer than human drivers.

As an example the abstract summarizes their second conclusion as follows: “It is not a foregone conclusion that a self-driving vehicle would ever perform more safely than an experienced, middle-aged driver”.

Who could argue against this statement? Of course, this is not a foregone conclusion. This is a hard problem and a substantial question. Neither would it be a a foregone conclusion that a self-driving vehicle would ever perform more safely than an experienced, young driver (or even an unexperienced young driver). But many readers will interpret this conclusion that the authors – after having analyzed the issue – have found substantial problems that raise doubts as to whether autonomous cars could ever perform better than experienced, middle-aged drivers. But the full text of the report contains just one sentence which further examines this problem:

“To the extent that not all predictive knowledge gained through experience could exhaustively be programmed into a computer (or even quantified), it is not clear a priory (italics by the original authors) whether computational speed, constant vigilance, and lack of distractability of self-driving vehicles would trump the predictive experience of middle-aged drivers”. (Page 4)

Nobody can argue with this statement. It would be a good introduction to a chapter that looks at this problem in more detail, provides some framework, examines the different aspects etc. etc. But this does not materialize.

If we read the study carefully, then we find a pattern that valid questions are being raised, a small number of the aspects relating to these questions are outlined, and then the questions are rephrased into conclusions which themselves are questions. This is unfortunate because the topic is extremely important. More than a million people die in traffic accidents every year. If – twenty years from now – we might look back from a situation where traffic accidents have fallen by more than a factor of five, then we will be able to state with certainty how many lives could have been saved if self-driving cars would have been introduced a few years earlier. We might find that tens of thousands of people have lost their lives because governments and regulators did not realize the risk of delaying a highly beneficial technology and business and innovators were reluctant to advance the technology because of a climate of mistrust and skepticism with respect to the technology. Of course, from the perspective of today this is not a foregone conclusion but we need to make an effort to understand the risks and likely accident patterns of autonomous vehicles much better.

There are lives at stake both if we are too optimistic and too pessimistic over the potential of this technology. But the problem is not symmetric: If we are too pessimistic with respect to the potential of this technology, then we can easily find ourselves in a situation in the future where we find in hindsight that thousands of lives have been lost because of this pessimism and the resulting delay of the introduction. On the other hand, if we are overly optimistic with regard to the technology, and accelerate innovation in this area, it is unlikely that thousands of lives will be lost because the cars do not perform as safely as expected. We can be confident that certification bodies will do their work and uncover problems before they can cause thousands of deaths and regulators will most surely step in immediately when these cars do not perform as expected. At the current stage therefore, pessimism about the technology’s potential may be much more deadly than optimism (which should not be confounded with being blind about the risks).

We should work together urgently to formulate a theory of human traffic accidents and self-driving car accidents which can help us shed light on the issue and understand and organize the many different aspects of this problem. This is hard but it can be done. Please contact me at info.2011 ( at ) inventivio ( dot ) com if you are already working on this topic, if you know of a suitable approach for covering this problem or if you are interested in working together on this topic. I will post one approach on how this could be achieved next week.

2015-01-23: Added link to the full text of the study.


PwC predicts collapse of car sales because of self-driving cars

PricewaterhouseCoopers – the world’s largest professional services firm – has just released an analyst note about the effects of autonomous cars on the auto industry. While the report is extremely positive about the technology (predicting a reduction of traffic accidents by a factor of 10) it cautions that the fleet of vehicles in the  United States may collapse from 245 million to just 2.4 million. This is a reduction by the factor of 100 and significantly higher than the factor of 10 provided in a recent study by  the Earth Institute which we highly recommend.

It is encouraging that the major consulting firms and think tanks are beginning to take note of the tectonic shifts which will occur in the auto industry within a few years – and which we have emphasized for the last 3 years. The study contrasts with a recent report by KPMG on “Self-driving cars – the next revolution“. While KPMG’s analysts briefly mentioned on-demand mobility services (autonomous car sharing), they failed to see its disruptive potential.

It is time for the auto industry to seriously plan for this future. Contact us – we can help!



Driverless cars needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions!

By the end of this century, global warming could increase the world’s mean temperature by 4 degrees Celsius, warns a recent report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The effects would be dramatic: “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems,
and associated services“.

Road transport is responsible for about 5 billion tonnes of CO2 annually (data: 2008) which is almost 20% of total global CO2 emissions. Growth in global transportation is likely to further increase these numbers. Global policy makers are searching for ways to limit this growth in greenhouse gas emissions but they still fail to see the potential of autonomous vehicles:

1) Autonomous vehicles could greatly decrease greenhouse gas emissions in urban traffic because
– Car-sharing services could offer local mobility for a highly competitive price based on a fleet of smaller, lighter cars which therefore cause fewer emissions
– Local car sharing fleets would be ideal adopters for alternative, low-emission drives (electric cars, hydrogen, fuel cells). Because of their higher utilization levels, higher initial capital costs for the new technology as compared to the gasoline engine would not matter as much. Autonomous cars used for local trips would be an ideal application for getting electric cars into operation in high numbers.
– Increased use of car-sharing for local transport reduces the overall demand for vehicles which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emission for manufacturing automobiles.

2) Especially in emerging nations which don’t yet have a large percentage of car ownership driverless cars could be the basis for a much more effective transport system which uses a combination of shared driverless vehicles for short distances and buses, trains etc. for medium and long distance travel. Autonomous cars would establish an optimal link between individual and mass transit; small, local driverless vehicles could serve as feeders for the last mile by transporting individuals to/from local bus stations, train stations etc.

3) Driverless cars use roads more efficiently (fewer emissions because of less road construction), can reduce emissions by driving in convoys and don’t induce traffic jams.

Overall, autonomous vehicles could be a major technology to fight against climate change. The technology can even pay for itself: It is probably the only technology which lowers overall costs (of mobility, maintaining the infrastructure etc.). Policy-makers, take note!

Autonomous vehicles could slash road infrastructure costs

Driverless cars are not only getting better at racing, they also drive more efficiently. They react faster and therefore require shorter safety distances. This increases the number of cars that can drive on a given road. A group of researchers from Columbia University have calculated the potential capacity increases and have shown that autonomous cars could greatly increase highway capacity. If cars are able communicate with each other and negotiate their speed and safety distance, highway capacity could increase by up to a factor of 4!

This could translate into great savings for infrastructure expenditures. Annual spending for highway infrastructure alone in the United States amounts to approximately 150 billion U$! Great savings could also be realized in developing countries with fast-growing road networks.

The paper systematically models different cases of capacity utilization and calculates the distances required between cars at different speeds and for different mixes of cars being operated by human drivers, running in autonomous, sensor-based mode or driving in connected mode. They find that the optimum capacity increase occurs when all cars are linked electronically. Just a few cars that are able to communicate makes little difference however. This is different for sensor-based, non-communicating autonomous cars. Even a few such cars would increase road capacity.

The paper provides great insights for anyone interested in the economic implications of autonomous car technologies. Investments in this technology have great potential of reducing road infrastructure expenditures.

Source: Tientrakol, P.; Ho, Y.-.C and Maxemchuk, N.F.: Highway capacity benefits from using vehicle to vehicle communication and sensors for collision avoidance. Vehicular Technology  Conference, 2011. (url)

Traffic accidents are among top leading causes of death

A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows how dangerous motorized traffic is: Traffic accidents continue to be the leading cause of death for the age groups from 8 to 24 years! If the number of years lost are considered, then traffic deaths are at positions four in the year 2008 and five in 2009 among the leading causes of death for all age groups. Many accidents involve alcohol or human error. Many such accidents would not occur if the development and introduction of autonomous vehicle technology would be accelerated.

We should stop thinking about incremental measures to reduce traffic deaths by a few percent. Instead, we should aim to reduce it by at least a factor of three. Autonomous vehicle technology clearly has this potential!

Click the graphic to enlarge the image. Source: NHTSA


Blind driver: Self-driving cars give me the indepence to go where I want to go

Steve Mahan, a blind person, makes a strong appeal for driverless cars in a video released by Google. The video shows Mr Mahan in the driver’s seat of their autonomous Prius completing what for others may look like everyday chores but what for some groups of our society is extremely hard: Pickung up laundry from the cleaners, fetching something to eat at an arbitrary fast-food restaurant.

The freedom to move is a great accomplishment of modern society. Young people anxiously look forward to the time when they can drive around on their own, going wherever they want. But we forget that large groups are excluded from this freedom: Those with disabilities, the elderly (who may find it hard to continue living in their own home when they can no longer drive a car), the young (whose parents often find themselves in the role of personal chauffeur) and the poor who can not afford their own car.

Source: ABC News

Google’s low-cost PR video clearly outlines a major benefit of self-driving vehicles and is an attempt at shaping the public debate. This is crucial for any company before bringing a new technology into the market. While the Google car may still be a few years away, this video shows that the strategists at Google are carefully laying the groundwork for that occasion.