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More on driverless cars and smart roads

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read the first part.)

In the driverless era, intelligent highways will be able to accommodate 10 to 20 times as many vehicles as they do today. Counter to traditional thinking about vehicle safety, the higher the speeds, the fewer the number of vehicle on the roads at any given moment.

As we compress the time and space requirements of every vehicle, we will be able to achieve a far higher yield of passenger benefits per square foot of road resources.

In addition to the benefits passengers receive, the road itself can greatly benefit from this technology. With cars constantly monitoring road conditions, the road itself can call for its own repair.

Rather than waiting until a road becomes a serious hazard, as is currently the case, and repair crews disrupt traffic for hours, days, or longer, micro repairs can happen on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. High-speed coatings and surface repairs can even be developed for in-traffic application.

Even treacherous snow and ice conditions will have little effect if deicer is applied immediately and traffic is relentless enough.

On-Demand Transportation

In the same way people hail a cab, people in the future will use their mobile devices to summon a driverless vehicle whenever they need to travel. Without the cost of drivers, this type of transportation will be infinitely more affordable, for most, less than the cost of vehicle ownership.

So rather than buying a car, and taking on all the liabilities of maintenance, upkeep and insurance, consumers will simply purchase transportation whenever they need it.

As the transition is made to driverless vehicles, the number of vehicles sold to individuals will begin to decline, and a growing percentage will be to large fleet operators offering the new “transportation on-demand” service.

In response to declining car sales, the automotive industry will adopt a “selling transportation” model where, rather than “selling” cars to fleet operators, car companies will begin charging a nominal per-mile charge.

Fleet operators will love the arrangement because there will be no large up-front purchase price, but instead, only a small monthly fee based on the number of miles driven.

As the sale of cars begins to decline, the automobile industry will start to design and manufacture cars capable of driving over 1 million miles. By collecting a small per-mile fee over the life of a million-mile car, automobile manufacturers will have the potential of earning ten times as much, per vehicle, as they do today.

This will mean all car parts and components will need to be designed more durable, longer-lasting than ever before. Both quality and design standards will be pushed to new levels.

Shifting from the “Driver” Experience to the “Rider” Experience

Car designers today spend the vast majority of their time trying to optimize the driver experience. After all, the driver is the most important part of the ownership equation. But that will soon change.

In the “driverless era,” the focus will shift to passenger comfort and passenger experience. Fancy dashboards displaying dazzling amounts of information will become a thing of the past as riders obsess more over the on-board movie, music, and massage interfaces.

Some cars operations will be more conversational in nature, pairing socially compatible riders in a way to maximize the conversational benefits of like-minded individuals. Others will stress the benefits of alone-time, offering a peaceful zen-like experience for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of work-life.

The China Advantage

China doesn’t need more cars, it needs more transportation.

They already understand time compression, using high-speed rail systems to reduce the travel time on the Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Railway from 70 to 30 minutes.

Similarly, the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway that opened in June 2011 reduced the 819 mile distance between the two largest cities in China to under 5 hours.

With the coming turnover in infrastructure, more in the next 20 years than in all human history, countries that can make decisions fastest, and perform quickest, will have a huge advantage.

China has demonstrated time and again that they can make things happen quickly.

Final Thoughts

We are all terminally human, and human fallibility lies at the heart of the transportation conundrum. We all love to drive, but humans are the inconsistent variable in this demanding area of responsibility. Driving requires constant vigilance, constant alertness, and constant involvement.

However, once we take the driver out of the equation we solve far more problems than the wasted time and energy needed to pilot the vehicle.

But vehicle design is only part of the equation. Without reimagining the way we design and maintain highways, driverless cars will only achieve a fraction of their true potential.

Combining smart cars (driverless) with smart highways (also driverless), we can begin to envision a far brighter future ahead.

In the end, we will be driving towards a far safer and more resilient society, but we still have a few bumpy roads to go down in the mean time.


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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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