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OK, I admit it. I’m obsessed with the idea of self-driving cars – especially electric self-driving cars (see here, here and here, for instance). But why shouldn’t I be excited about a technology that will, Deo volente, transform the world in my lifetime?

For those of us born in the last third of the 20th century, our experience of world-changing technology is limited to the digital sphere. We’re grateful for mobile phones and the internet, but it was our parents and grandparents who truly saw their lives transformed.

In Popular Science, David Gershgorn reports on a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab study into the likely impact of autonomous electric vehicles. The key insight is that the new technology won’t just transform the way in which cars are driven and fuelled, but also the way in which they’re owned and operated:

“If a fleet of autonomous electric taxis were to replace everyone’s gas-powered, personal cars, we could see more than a 90 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and almost 100 percent decrease in oil consumption from cars, all while saving money in the long run. Right now that may seem like a long shot, but a study earlier this year said that 44 percent of Americans would consider buying a driverless car in the next 10 years, even if it would cost $5,000 more.

“Now this may seem obvious: if you started to only build electric cars, emissions and oil consumption will fall. But what surprised Berkeley researchers was how most efficient such a system would actually be, even with the relatively high cost of electric vehicles today.”

The current ownership structure of cars is inefficient, because in most cases, most of the time, they just sit there taking up space. Taxis avoid this disadvantage, but with current technology this means hiring the driver as well as the vehicle. With driverless technology, however, the economics are transformed to dramatic effect:

“A fleet about 15 percent of the size of all private cars could service the same population, if scheduled correctly… But the real savings would be found in the operating cost. Even when estimating that an electric, driverless car would cost $150,000 up front, researchers say that a car that could drive 24/7, not require a salary and use no gasoline would pay for itself before five years.”

The efficiencies don’t stop there:

“Researchers relied heavily on the idea they called ‘right-sizing,’ meaning the car dispatched would be fit to the trip’s needs. For instance, a different car would be sent for one-person trip, versus a group of four people heading out for a long-distance road trip.”

The next time you’re driving alone just think about the empty seats beside and behind you and the sheer weight of the metal and other materials required to accommodate them. Moving all that purposeless matter through time and space requires energy which you’re paying for at the petrol pump.

Further weight reductions can be achieved by ‘right-sizing’ the vehicle not only to the number of passengers but to the nature of the journey. For instance, for short journeys at relatively low speed in an urban environment, today’s cars are ridiculously over-engineered. With the new technology, pod-like vehicles could do the job nicely instead. Even on longer routes and at higher speeds, the elimination of human error (not to mention downright human stupidity) would eliminate most accidents, meaning that we wouldn’t have to build cars like tanks anymore.

As for the weight of all those batteries, that too can be minimised by automation:

“…when the battery is low, a car would simply drive back to the main station, to be replaced in the field by a charged car.”

In summary, this is the world of the not-too-distant future: a road transport system based on a drastically reduced number of cars that users wouldn’t have to own, maintain, insure, refuel or park – and which (probably) won’t run anyone over.

There will be those who miss driving the things, but, like horse riding, that could be catered for as a hobby.

35 comments for: The multiple efficiencies of self-driving electric cars

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