Here's how we can advance the era of driverless vehicles and make the world better
November 1, 2015 12:00 AM
By Eric Swanson
Famed entrepreneur Elon Musk recently announced that new models of the Tesla S electric vehicle would be capable of driving themselves. Two weeks ago he released software that allows them to operate semi-autonomously and a threesome promptly drove one across the country almost exclusively on autopilot.
While these developments may be driven in part by marketing, they portend a new age. Autonomous cars are coming, whether we are ready or not, and they will be revolutionary. How?
Self-driving vehicles are robots and thus do not get tired, drunk or impatient, and they certainly do not break the law. This means that the carnage on the national road system eventually will disappear, saving 32,000 lives per year.
In stark actuarial terms, eliminating road crashes will save the economy a staggering $800 billion per year. More importantly, thousands of families will be spared the crushing sorrow of the needless death of a loved one.
Despite the claims of a few of our more dinosaurish politicians, it is increasingly clear that burning carbon is causing climate change. If temperatures rise too far too fast, the resulting stresses on ecosystems are likely to cause large-scale upheavals. If this is not enough reason to act, we are rapidly running out of conventional oil (although there is unconventional oil aplenty) so it wouldn’t hurt to think ahead.
A lot of atmospheric carbon comes from our cars. About 30 percent of the national energy budget is expended on transportation, which pumps about 4 trillion pounds of carbon per year into the air.
On a personal level, every mile you drive contributes three-fourths of a pound of carbon dioxide to the total. To make matters worse, the process of moving a bag of Cheetos from the grocery store to your house is colossally inefficient: About three-fourths of the energy content of gas is wasted as heat, primarily in exhaust and heating the engine.
Here’s the good news: Beside being quiet and having phenomenal acceleration, electric vehicles are far more efficient than carbon burners. If we can generate the electricity cleanly we will have gone a long way toward solving our carbon addiction problem.
But there is an issue: Current battery technology does not permit trips longer than about 60 miles, which might be OK for commuting, but not much else. Possible solutions to this problem are to develop more efficient batteries or batteries that can recharge very quickly. Even if these are feasible options, both will take time and substantial research investment to develop.
Fortunately, there is a third option that is technically and economically feasible right now: Electrify the national highway system. Here’s the idea:
You drive your electric vehicle to the nearest on-ramp using your car’s batteries and park. The car’s computer then takes over and merges you onto the highway where it collects energy either through an overhead wire or by electromagnetic waves produced by power sources along the road. The computer drives you safely and efficiently to your exit where you take over to complete the trip.
Autonomous highway driving is much simpler than city driving and vehicles already exist that can do this. While you relax with a cappuccino, your batteries are charged and your account is debited for the electricity.
Supplying the power to the road system will not be easy but is within reach. Taking into account the much better efficiency of electric motors, about 100 gigawatts of power are required for the nation’s long-distance driving. This can be generated with current technology by lining the national highway system with a 60-foot-wide strip of photovoltaic panels.
The total cost, again, with current technology, would be about $1 trillion. This sounds like a lot, but would amount to $50 billion per year for 20 years. This is comparable to the national highways budget and is less than one-tenth of what is spent on the military (but there are many offsetting savings, not least the elimination of accidents). At a more local level, electrifying the road system would cost about $7 million per mile. This compares to construction costs of $4 million to $10 million per mile for a four-lane highway.
Autonomous cars help here, too. Once they enter the highway, they can link in virtual electric trains, making for much more efficient travel. And because they are aware of other vehicles, the density of traffic can be much higher and only two-lane highways need be constructed.
Robotic cars will do more than save lives and the environment, they also will change our culture. If a car can drive itself, why bother to own one? If you want to go to the store, just tap a button on your smartphone and one will appear to pick you up in a few minutes. It would be like a super taxi service — an uber Uber. So, no more driveways or garages and far fewer parking lots.
With little need for individually owned cars, it will be much easier to live in high-rises, so we will be able to live in denser cities, thereby creating larger and more readily accessible green areas for all to enjoy. Our cities will be quieter and greener.
Neighborhood roads will be much narrower since people need not park on them and autonomous cars can share them with skill.
Leaving football games will amount to an orderly robotic dispersal guided by efficient traffic-flow algorithms.
Smaller vehicles will deliver groceries and other goods to your door.
Traffic laws will be obsolete: Why stop at every intersection when connected self-aware autonomous vehicles can whiz through without slowing? Speed limits will be irrelevant because cars will be able to safely travel at speeds constrained only by comfort and technological feasibility.
Auto insurance companies will find themselves without clients and will need to seek other business — another substantial savings.
People will live longer because car exhaust is a major contributor to small-particulate pollution. This is no minor thing; in Pittsburgh small-particulate pollution ranges from 10 to 20 micrograms per cubic meter, which lowers our life expectancy by an average of seven to 14 months.
A few enthusiasts will insist on driving their own cars for sport, but most people will regard them as extravagant eccentrics.
A healthier and less environmentally damaging future is in store if we don't drop the ball. And there is much work to be done: Laws will need to be modified to account for the new robotic reality, privacy concerns will need to be addressed, and a new national infrastructure will have to be built to take advantage of it all.
But we built the interstate highway system and the Internet, landed a man on the moon and eliminated small-pox. We can do it again.
Eric S. Swanson is a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a member of the American Physical Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists and the author of “Science and Society.”
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