AVision: Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Transportation

We have a vision of how the future is going to move.

The guiding concept is simple: as computation and robotics become robust enough to economically perform functions typically done by humans, they will. And they will execute them with a precision and an interconnectedness that allow for rapid improvements in quality and efficiency.  Beginning with slow, fragmented, incremental growth, machine learning will ensure acceleration at an exponential rate, quickly outstripping the human rate of progress to which we are accustomed. We refer to this process as the Automated Revolution, and it’s already changing everything.

The Autonomer is the vehicle for us to explore this vision as it happens, and we invite you to join us in our endeavor to understand it.

The ride begins, aptly, with transportation, which as a field has been quietly undergoing piecemeal automation for the last decade. Primarily matters of single-function assistance and support—including cruise control and lane-centering in automobiles, as well as more extensive automation in a limited number of rail systems worldwide—these features have, by and large, left the wheel firmly in the hands of the human operator.  We believe, however, that the next decade will follow a very different pattern.

AVision, our first topic module, will track the development of an iconic and increasingly visible symbol of the Automated Revolution, one that is poised to utterly disrupt the transportation field: the autonomous vehicle. Popularly referred to as self-driving cars, driverless cars, and robocars (well, perhaps not popularly), AVs are swiftly earning an impressive degree of technological celebrity. 

We at The Autonomer have been following trends in the autonomous transportation field for some time, and are beginning here because we have come to see it as part of a vanguard of sorts for the Automated Revolution in the twenty-first century—the first wave of tangible lifestyle changes resulting from the automation of what were once deeply-human tasks. It is the sea change that shows us we are entering a new way of living.

The Commute, c. 2022

You conclude your final batch of emails, power down your computer and head to the elevator, sending the e-hail on the way down. The car pulls up as you reach the curb—at this point, there are enough in constant circulation during peak hours that you need not wait more than a few seconds.  Your phone pings, and a door lifts open.  Inside, four open seats face each other in square, with a small tabletop in the middle. You pick a spot, and an instant after you settle, the electric engine, almost inaudible, engages. You begin to glide seamlessly into the stream of vehicles platooning down the avenue.

Two blocks later, the car pulls once again to the curb, and the door lifts to welcome a second passenger. A woman from a neighboring apartment sits, and moments later you’re off again. Flashing you a quick smile, she says something about finishing a presentation, and dives quickly and deeply into her tablet. Content with your day’s work, you put in your headphones and find the game. Three quick taps through a menu sequence produce a cold beer to your right, and with that, the evening’s entertainment has begun—thirty minutes before you arrive home. The bill? With rides averaging to $1/mile, yours comes to $3.50 (before the beer).

Interior of the Mercedes F 015 Luxury in Motion Research Car (Mercedes)

Interior of the Mercedes F 015 Luxury in Motion Research Car (Mercedes)

This is the dream, the fantastic endgame. It’s also actively becoming a reality. Most major automakers—General Motors (specifically Cadillac and Chevrolet), Ford, Nissan, Volvo, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Tesla—have skin in the game already, having trumpeted ambitious unveiling dates or patented AV-related features. And unsurprisingly so, as it’s hard not to see the potential for the e-hail AV fleet paradigm, an intersection of AVs and the UberPool/Lyft Line platform model, to marginalize traditional car ownership. However, it may be the tech giants (Google, Apple, or Chinese Baidu) or transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber or, though allegedly less interested, Lyft, that flip the transportation paradigm and get us there first. But then, maybe it’s too early to pick a champion: perchance it will be a startup you’ve never heard of, or one that will emerge in the coming years, nimble enough to capture a market that doesn’t totally exist yet.  Or else, probably more likely, it will be some combination of all of the above—partnerships between automakers and tech companies or TNCs and academics (or at least, former academics) geared toward leveraging existing strengths to ramp up faster than their competitors can individually.  

In any case, estimates on when that will be vary widely: predictions tend to fall in a range between, well, now, and twenty-five years from now. Of course, differing interpretations regarding which point in the adoption process we’re talking about—Technological sufficiency? Legality? Market saturation?—skew the comparisons a bit. Taking all that speculation in aggregate, it looks like, if we can steer clear of messy and punitive regulatory hurdles—as US DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx vowed in May we would— autonomous vehicles could be a common sight in our street mix in the early-to-mid-2020s.

Just how we get to AV4—a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration designation meaning fully autonomous—is debated hotly by industry and self-declared pundits (among whose ranks we certainly count) alike.  Will it be a gradual coalescence of automated features, integrating until they eventually render human input unnecessary? Or, instead, one big, concerted, transformative push that shocks the industry into a new modus operandi? This will, more than likely, result from who is driving the automation. Auto manufacturers seem inclined to release successive iterations marked by incrementally-greater automation; Google, on the other hand, with no such vested interest in the current automobile production and distribution model, has its sights set squarely on full, no-steering-wheel autonomy.

Google’s self-driving car (Tweaktown)

Google’s self-driving car (Tweaktown)

AVs, if engineered safely and securely, deployed cheaply and widely, integrated as a constantly-circulatinge-hail fleet, and regulated judiciously, will revolutionize transportation in a way unseen since the advent of their human-operated forerunners. In fact, the transportation network is only the first among a host of related systems and paradigms—from planning to public safety and infotainment to insurance—that will undergo dramatic reconsideration.

As other excited observers are quick to note, for example, autonomous transportation could be the game-changer that makes vehicle electrification truly viable. In conjunction with a progressively-cleaner grid, AVs, able to drive themselves to recharge locations at any time in between trips, could go a long way to eliminating the current fifth of total US greenhouse gas emissions that the ground transportation sector generates. In so doing, AV distribution could also dramatically lower urban pollutant levels (noise included). To realize such climatic and public health benefits, however, we’ll first need to take a serious look at the cleanliness and distribution capacity of the electrical grid of the near future.

Though perhaps less immediately evident, the impact on the physical makeup of our urban cores could be equally profound. Parking minimums, common even in America’s denser cityscapes, prevent a good deal of valuable land from being developed, which in turn increases the cost of built-out space, while creating barriers to pedestrian activity and limiting commercial function. Your city’s experiencing an affordable housing crisis? Try opening up all of the land currently devoted to parking for housing development. And you’ll bolster city coffers in the process: tax revenue from buildings, a major source of municipal funds, far exceeds receipts from land allocated to parking.

Then there’s logistics. While the majority of the autonomous transportation visioning and hype occurs within the people-moving realm, recent months have seen some remarkable developments in autonomous trucking, Daimler’s release of the autonomous Freightliner Inspiration Truck, cleared to drive on Nevada roads, chief among them. Indeed, non-stop, long-distance journeys on sparsely-occupied interstates present an interesting middle ground between existing automation in rail systems and the infinitely-more-dynamic metropolitan transportation system. The grueling nature of trucking-driving—an industry known for stimulant abuse and occasional horrific crashes—further primes it for early automation. Meanwhile, in the urban arena, courier drones, right-sized for a range of express delivery tiers, could blend easily into the network of platooning, communicating vehicles.  Complementing the almost-certain future of autonomous airborne delivery drones, their ground-based counterparts could help minimize city airspace clutter, utilize existing infrastructure, and consume less energy than flight requires, all while being considerably less terrifying.

Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration Truck, cleared to drive in Nevada (Daimler)

Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration Truck, cleared to drive in Nevada (Daimler)

And, of course, there’s the most obvious benefit: public safety resulting from collision reduction. As Vision Zero and a host of programs inspired by it sweep through the United States, transportation planners and public safety advocates (which should, reasonably, be everyone) are taking a hard look at all aspects of our street system, and how it can be reworked to save lives, without compromising the basic throughput function it must serve. When, according to NHTSA, an estimated 93% of 2009 US vehicle crashes resulted from human error, it’s hard not to conclude that taking the human part out is a good start.

There are plenty more components to wonk out over, and fear not; we’ll get there in the coming articles. First, though, this is probably a good time to make an important point about The Autonomer and what we’re trying to do here: As we’ve made clear, we’re very excited about the possibility of super-precise computer systems chauffeuring us and our belongings around in right-sized, low- or no-emission electric car-lounges, trucks and couriers that arrive instantaneously at a small fraction of the current price of comparable services, all while freeing up public space and making users, pedestrians and cyclists safer. That snapshot, in our mind, isn’t particularly controversial—if it’s possible, it should be pursued. 

And it is possible; it’s just also far from the only possible outcome. The thing is, with so many technical, legal, economic and political variables remaining unsolved, the advent and integration of autonomous transportation systems has the potential to develop into a scene very different from the one we’ve painted—or not develop at all.

To elaborate, here’s a quick survey of potential missteps (in no particular order; some may induce others):

1. Hasty deployment: An industry arms-race to corner the market first, leading manufacturers to release vehicles that aren’t quite technologically capable of handling the complex situations they’re expected to navigate (or don’t degrade gracefully). Bad accidents early on could give opposition the fuel they need to shut down autonomy for a long time.

2. Patchwork, premature, protective or prohibitive legislation: State-by-state statutes that preempt consistent NHTSA standards; legislation at any level that regulates threats that don’t exist yet; artificial subsidies of traditional competing services or punitive taxation of autonomous tech to protect existing employment; or outright prohibition of autonomous tech, likely resulting from extensive political pressure from coalitions of various vehicle-operator unions.

3. Incomplete automation: Vehicles never quite achieve full AV4, perhaps resulting from technical incapability, public concern, legislation or liability roadblocks, or automakers’ desire to keep the total US fleet size from shrinking dramatically.

4. Insecure networking: Anything short of a completely-impenetrable cybersecurity makeup.

5. Bad marketing: Insufficient attention to the fear of automation, public safety concerns, and early accidents; and/or inadequate promotion of all of the benefits.

6. Continued personal-vehicle ownership: Any combination of factors that prevent TNCs or similar models from becoming the predominant form of transportation, thereby maintaining the US fleet size, encouraging waste, and potentially sprawl.

7. Persistent fossil-fuel reliance: Continued predominance of combustion engines through the transition to AV4. Relatedly, if the trend in electricity generation away from coal doesn’t continue, the emissions benefits of switching to electric vehicles could be largely negated in much of the country.

8. Improper liability attribution: Emergence of a legal structure that places punitive, even prohibitive liability for technical failures on centralized corporate entities.

9. Insufficient job-loss mitigation: Inadequate preparation for the permanent displacement of a large number of low-skill workers associated with human-operated transportation and logistics, as well as a smaller number of higher-skilled machinery operators, and those associated with automobile manufacturing. Perceptions of governmental indifference to the economic uncertainty could also stoke greater opposition than would otherwise exist.

So this is our point: While we’re motivated by the prospect of that ideal endgame, we recognize too that to get there, the road to AV4 must be vigilantly observed, and that doesn’t happen if we uncritically extol every step that Google or Uber or Tesla takes to advance its AV efforts. In an ironic metaphorical twist, to win a future of distraction at the wheel, we must remain unfailingly alert.

With that in mind, AVision is The Autonomer’s effort to help make sure the next iteration of our transportation system is the right one. By accumulating and analyzing perspectives and opinions from everywhere while delving deeply into the more complex questions associated with automating a sector so fundamental that it can be largely generalized as movement, we aim to concentrate everything you could want to know into one insightful, intuitive and vaguely-smarmy place.

That, finally, is perhaps our most essential goal: we want to be a resource to you. This article has a lot of hyperlinks, and all of them were selected from a range of articles and reports making comparable points. The media coverage and academic investigation, as you’ve undoubtedly concluded, is extensive and diffuse.  A lot of (other) smart people are also writing about this, and you deserve to have a reliably-informed team digesting, reformatting and responding to all of it for you.

And we at The Autonomer want to take that role in a lot of areas. This is just the first.

If you like that thought, sign up for our mailing list below and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates and coverage on all things autonomous transportation, and a smattering of other emerging tech trends.

More importantly, check out our other AVision content; coming articles will probe deeply into each of these subjects and questions as they evolve.