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Blog: How Self-Driven Vehicles Will Transform Our Cities


Google’s Waymo Self-driving car prototype

When considering the deployment of self-driving cars, we think about convenience, cost, risk of accidents, efficient transportation, hacking problems, and artificial intelligence. The good and the bad. The economic impact of such vehicles is unclear, but we know for sure we’ll be more productive, they will reduce the number of accidents and those cars will look odd.

Self-driven cars should make their first official appearance next year according to most major car manufacturers. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has declared that by the end of next year, there should be over 1 million self-driven cars on the road and that’s only Tesla. Uber, Lyft, Waymo, and others, in partnership with major manufacturers like Ford and Toyota, will follow suit the following year at the latest. Suffice to say, there is plenty of investment and planning that has gone into this already. It WILL happen. These changes in transportation will surprise many and it will happen within just a few years.

Car-sharing has become quite a successful phenomenon around the world. You probably know at least one person who drives for Uber or Lyft. Other self-driving service businesses want a piece of the pie, and none want to tackle the hassle of dealing with human drivers if there was an alternative. Hence why most of the large car-sharing companies have been investing heavily in artificial intelligence and forging strategic partnerships in the last few years.

From a consumer point of view, if self-driving vehicles drive better than human drivers, why would anyone want to have human drivers on the road causing accidents?

Self-driving cars: car’s solving the money sink problem

If deploying self-driving vehicles in the next year or two goes as Tesla and the others plan, what will our roads and cities look like in 10 years? Well, the main issue with our current vehicles is that most people drive them only 5% of the time. We park the rest of the time. Not a great use of such an expensive investment. We know cars are money sinks, but they wouldn’t be if we used them most of the day: that’s why taxi companies and car-sharing services make money even though they use the same cars to drive people around. The financial problem is the amount of time we are productive using the vehicle compared to its cost. If we save say $20 of billable hours using a car and use it only one hour a day, that’s $600 per month in increased efficiency. Counting all costs, including gas, parking, insurance, lease, and servicing, most car owners spend about $1,000 per month, for a net monthly loss of $400 per month. If you would use your car 10 hours a day for your productivity, you would gain $20 times 10 hours in productivity per day, for the same cost: $200 per day or $6,000 per month. Now that’s an investment worth it. Unfortunately, no one needs to drive 10 hours a day to “save” productivity time.

If you own your own self-driven car, however, you could let it be its own “Uber” and drive other passengers around on subscription. You own the vehicle and pay its costs, but you let it save productive time for others and make money from its usage. You own the hardware while the AI drives your car around while you don’t need it. Your own digital Uber driver. That way, you can use your vehicle to save your $20 a day in productive time while the other 95% of the time, the car makes money for you, saving other people productivity time.

For those without a car, it may be worth $20 to be driven around each hour. Maybe they would happily pay $10 per hour for the privilege of using your car. Let’s do the math. You save $20 for your hour and you make $230 the rest of the time (to keep things simple, I just used 23 / 24 hours instead of the 95%) from your self-driving client, for a grand total gain of $250 per day, or $7,500 per month. Your cost may rise to $1,500 — $2,000 per month because of the increased usage and electricity costs, but your car is no longer a money sink. It’s a revenue-generating business.

Tesla plans to establish its Robo-taxi Network to facilitate this transaction. Uber, Lyft and other car-sharing companies plan to follow their own business model, minus the driver. For the consumer, the services will look identical, but the price points may differ. The competition will ensure for a much lower consumption cost than what I describe in the above example. Yay, us! Some ride-sharing companies plan to have their own fleet of vehicles they will manage and clean themselves. May the best service win in the court of public opinion!

City planning with self-driving vehicles

In 10 years, it is likely most vehicles on the road will be electric with either level 4 (near-total automation) or level 5 automation (full automation). In Canada, there are about 25 million cars on the road, for a population of 37 million. If the population uses car-sharing services as described above to move around, we’d need way fewer cars. Based on the 5% efficiency of car usage we have today, if we increased that to only 50% efficiency of car usage, out of a possible 100% perfection, we’d need 10 times fewer cars on the road, thus about 2,5 million total cars in Canada.

These cars are all digital, will have excellent sophisticated AI connected to Wi-Fi networks that allow all cars to communicate with weather stations, traffic patterns, other cars, trains, subway trains, airplanes and so on. They will know more about how to safely and efficiently get us from A to B than we ever could. It will be a new age of transportation where you need not plan your itinerary at all. Just let your onboard navigator do all the legwork for you, or perhaps your digital assistant.

With such useful networks of safe, quiet, electric vehicles on our roads, instead of buying our own cars, we could spend our hard-earned cash on other things of importance, such as leisure or family. Those who want to make their e-vehicle a business will compete with the others and add to the carpool but there will be a competitive balance between vehicle owners and the users.

Cities could then be transformed in several ways to add beauty, convenience or more population density, making use of the now empty street lanes and parking spaces that are no longer used. This would give lots of new choices to city planners on how to optimize neighborhoods based on need and demand.

The amount of city land area used up in parking spaces is significant. Most large American cities, except for New York City, have more parking spots than population, with numbers varying between 25 and 50 parking spaces per acre of land. This is equivalent to 10% — 20% of the available land area.

When self-driving cars enter the market, cities will convert extra parking lots into affordable housing, parks, gardens, other commerce and more. I also predict, to satisfy people’s desire to move on their own steam, an increase in two-wheel transportation vehicles, like hoverboards, skateboards, bicycles, and others. Given the extra land area freed up by introducing self-driving vehicles, there would be plenty of space on the side of the road to accommodate a bicycle. Imagine what city planners can do with an extra unused 10%-20% of land in city centers!

I for one am looking forward to all this activity (or reduction thereof) on our streets and our cities’ transformation. In 2017, there were 37,133 motor vehicle deaths in the US alone. Self-driving cars won’t completely eradicate that, but if we get below 30,000 while still increasing in population, that’s a strong win. It’ll only get better.

5G and the sky

Volocopter eVTOL passenger drone concept

Then, with 5G networks installed in our cities, all automated vehicle networks will become fantastic at avoiding any street problem. Also, because of the high amount and rate of data transfer, transporting people and goods will become so efficient we will wonder how we lived without it. Cars will share street and sidewalk activity with all cars on the network instantaneously while keeping traffic flowing and distance between cars comfortable with minimal abrupt stops along the way.

Need to get somewhere fast? No problem, companies like Google, Uber, Amazon and a bunch of others are planning to roll out fleets of self-flying drones too. Goods and passengers will fly over our heads, which means even fewer vehicles on the ground. What’s great about self-flying drones is that no one needs a pilot license to take to the air. The AI is doing all the work and patched into the same networks as self-driven cars. Today’s commercial airplanes are much bigger and complex, and they can already take-off, fly and land themselves without the pilot’s help. Hence, if you want to get to the city center faster, you can pay a little extra, and hail an electric VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) drone to take you directly where you need to go, as the crow flies, at upwards of 200 km/h. According to Porsche Consulting, Inc, estimate the Air Transportation market to reach $32 billion by 2035.

Indeed, the city of tomorrow won’t look like the vehicle-clogged, pollution-generating, noisy sight we have today. It’ll be quiet, with much fewer vehicles moving around, none parked, and lots more stuff going on in the air.

I can’t wait to see it!

Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium

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