I have this vision on loop in my head, and the vision is this: road transport in the not to distant future will be incredibly safe, quick, clean, cheap and fun.
Now, understand that this isn’t wishful thinking, this vision is based on observations of what is happening in the World of technology and startups, things that are happening right now.
The big win here is from driverless vehicles. 90% of all accidents on roads are caused by driver error. If you take the driver out of the equation for most of the time, then accident figures will come tumbling down. This will add to the great strides that have already been made, roads deaths have fallen by a lot in the developed World. Google car is perhaps the best known of these robot cars, but Mercedes, Nissan, Audi, BMW, and in fact most other manufacturers, are working on rivals. It is going to happen, and quite soon.
The next big win will be road design. This is the goal of the Vision Zero Initiative from Sweden. The mindset is to approach every accident with the question ‘how could we, as road providers, have prevented this accident?’
I’ve said this before and no doubt I will say this many times again; the purpose of vehicles is to decrease the time costs of travelling distance. Cars were invented to get you places faster than you can walk. The faster they get you somewhere, the better they are for you. The fly in that ointment is risk, increase the speed and and you increase the risk. But then if we’ve cut 90% of the risk out with automated driving, and eliminated most of the rest by road design, then we can think about increasing speeds. If you double a minuscule risk, you still have a minuscule risk. Reductions of core risks like this are the reason we can travel safely at 200mph in trains and 400mph in ‘planes. We could do the same on the roads.
There is plenty of logic to removing the power source from inside the car, and instead storing that power as electricity to drive it. It’s more efficient; a diesel power station will be more efficient than a diesel car because of scale advantages, and most cars are gas powered. The problem is, then you have to store that electricity somehow in the car.
Except that you don’t.
Trains have been running electrically for decades. It would be ridiculous for a train to carry a huge battery pack across the country, so train tracks have infrastructure that transmits electricity to the trains. So why can’t roads have the same for cars? Obviously you can’t have huge rails on the roads, or overhead power cables, but recent advances in wireless power transmission will soon make it possible to charge an electric car as it moves. All that then needs to happen is to find a road builder who will build suitable charging lanes.
There are big wins here. One problem of an electric car is weight, and a lot of that weight comes from the battery pack. Weight reduction is the Holy grail of vehicle design, light weight helps everything. Reduce the weight that needs to be carried and you can then reduce the weight of everything else; chassis, wheels, suspension, everything has less to do and can be lighter. That means less weight to move, less energy needed and even less pollution. So having dynamic charging gets rid of the need to have a huge battery pack, and electric cars can start to get much, much lighter. Cars like BMW’s i3, made of carbon fiber, would already be very light without a battery pack.
This may seem an unlikely claim. If fuel is getting more expensive, and electric cars currently cost a lot to buy, so then how are cars ever going to be cheap? Well, strictly speaking, electric cars aren’t expensive, the battery packs are. So, again, our car charging highways start to mean much smaller batteries, and much cheaper cars. And those cars will eventually be cheaper than the cars we have now. Manufacturers are making amazing internal combustion engines at the moment, but an electric motor is fundamentally simpler and cheaper.
Then there are the other costs. Servicing and maintenance: simpler vehicles equals less maintenance. Fuel: no more expensive gas or diesel, all nice cheap electrical power. Insurance: automated driving and better roads make for far fewer accidents, insurance premiums come crashing down. These kind of vehicles, combined with our kind of roads, will end up reducing the financial cost of distance.
Yes, really. And some of this enjoyment might come from unlikely quarters. Cars come with a huge built in advantage over other forms of transport. Unlike trains or buses, they are ready and right there, sitting outside your house, and they will take you precisely where you want to go. The problem is that driving takes all of our attention, and, because our cars are such confined spaces, the activity is solitary, or mostly restricted to those we know very well.
Not only is this a huge waste of resources, using all that energy to carry around all that air, it’s very anti-social, and anti-social is no fun. So sharing out those seats could spread the cost, and improve our social lives. But there must be a way of filtering. A stranger might well be the friend we’ve never met, but they also might be the crazed murderer we’ve never met as well. If we meet somewhere like a bar, well that’s open neutral territory and we can walk away if someone gets too weird. That’s a bit difficult if we are trapped together in what is effectively a very small mobile room, travelling at 70 mph on a freeway miles from home. Online there are plenty of ways of filtering connections to get to meet the people we want. Now, this raises an intriguing possibility; why don’t we use the filtering algorithms of social media to find the right riding partners?
You don’t want to be riding with a stranger, but add a layer of information, say they are a friend of a friend, have the same interests, and are the same kind of age, then you might consider it. Especially if you are sharing costs.
So let me give you this little vignette:
You own an autonomous driving, electric, minivan sized car. You are making a long trip, about 200 miles, but you’ve found some people who are going that way. You’ve never met them, but your friends have, and these people sound OK because you have so much in common. You get in the car and, for fun, elect to do a bit of driving across town. You pick your passengers up, and switch to auto-drive. You and the front seat passenger spin your seats around, there is no reason for you to be facing forward, and you get to know your new friends. The car seamlessly joins the freeway and, quietly, and gently, accelerates to a high cruising speed. You have a great time chatting, the inside of the car is spacious, clean and quiet, and you barely notice the countryside flicking past. A couple of your passengers excuse themselves and get busy with their laptops, so you check some messages on the cars built in screen. Before you know it , you are nearing your destination. You tell your passengers, and with some you make plans to meet again, just as the car glides to a halt at their destination. You leave the car in auto, and do a little window shopping as the car picks its way through the city. You get out at your stop, and you feel refreshed and invigorated as you step into the building. Meanwhile, the car glides off to find a parking space, ready to be summoned once you finish.
Sound unlikely? No doubt super-jumbo jets would have sounded unlikely sixty years ago.
The thing is, we shouldn’t have to wait sixty years. Most of the technology I’ve described exists, or is nearly here.
Please share if you agree!