Many of the uncertainties surrounding Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) circle around dates. “When will AVs move from pilot tests to the open road,” and “when will they outnumber conventional vehicles?” There is a lot riding on “when”. How can cities that plan transportation projects on a twenty or thirty years cycle evaluate future transit projects like rail when the “when” is unclear?
Often radically new inventions, like the AV, have to lay-in- wait until components of the technology catch up. The Picturephone, for example, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair and AT&T showed a prototype in the 1960s. But, picture vision, like Skype, did not become mainstream until advancements were achieved in over-the-air bandwidth and video compression.
Similarly, remote-controlled AVs debuted in the 1920’s, but it took technological advancements in the 1980s to make them scalable. The functional vehicle required fast computing, computer vision, video cameras, and thereafter, neural processing networks and advanced sensors. We are now at the point where companies, specifically Google, have logged 5 million miles on the road and 5 billiion more on simulators.
A Problem to be Solved:
But, to get to the next stage, and solve “when” the technology must either create a problem to be solved, or solve an existing problem. There are useful parallels for problem solving from the time, over a hundred years ago, when the transition was made from horse and carriage to the human driven vehicle (HDV). Many people are surprised at how quickly HDVs displaced horses, particularly in urban areas. But, that’s because, as we will see, the technology was a problem solver.
First, some perspective. At the turn of the century, there were 21 million horses in the U.S. and only about 4,000 automobiles. But, by 1908, in just eight years, the number of cars surpassed the number of horses in New York City. In more rural areas the diffusion was slower, but by 1922 horses were all but phased out, except in special applications. One of the key factors here was not a lack of interest, but often the absence of infrastructure, namely paved roads.
The human driven vehicle (HDV) required an infrastructure quite distinct from the horse and carriage. Cars operated on paved roads, with painted lanes, signalization, and traffic rules. It is not widely known that a smaller technology, the bicycle, came first and helped transition roadways from rutted road or cobblestone to smooth, bituminous surfaces.
It is likely that we already have that smaller technology in place for the AV. Smartphones enable communication between drivers, vehicle sensors, and maps. The phone also has a different purpose: it is widely used in cars for ‘infortainment’, such that drivers may welcome the transition to AVS so that they can continue to text and talk more safely.
During the transition from horses to cars, the wealthy acquired the first horseless carriages. It was a status symbol. However, the real adoption took place, function-to-function. Freight-haulage was one of the later functions, probably because early cars did not have the horsepower, literally .
In the case of autonomous vehicles, freight shippers are on the leading edge because of opportunities to save time and reduce a reliance on drivers. Autonomous cars may also appeal to suburban commuters, not because they are wealthy, but because they might help solve the problems of spending an average of 52 minutes a day stuck in traffic.
The transition from horses to car vastly disrupted the supply chain for farmers and agriculture. A single horse required five acres of hay and grain annually, so vast tracts of farmland were reserved for growing, then transporting, horse feed.
The autonomous car, in this case an electric one, will likewise upend the supply chain. It will greatly reduce carbon emissions if solar energy or wind power are sources for generating the electricity. The electric AV will also significantly reduce emissions wrought by the extended supply chain to drill, transport, refine, and store oil.
Public Health (1):
Public health is often cited as the core issue explaining why horse-driven transportation met a fast demise, and why cities were quick to adopt human driven vehicles.
The millions of horses that pulled carriages and moved good and services left behind gigantic volumes of urine and waste. Each day, the average horse produced 45 pounds of dung and a gallon of urine. Horses often died in service on the streets and their carcasses blocked traffic until they could be carted away.
The resulting public health issues ranged from noxious smells, horse dung passed on the shoes of pedestrians, flies, vermin, and airborne diseases.
Compared to horses, gas powered cars have fewer negative externalities, even with their massive C02 footprint. Electric cars will significantly reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. They will also reduce approximately $190 billion each year in health care costs associated with accidents.
The AV also brings two other distinct advantages under the rubric of public health. First, these cars are quiet and will reduce decibel levels in public spaces; noise reductions may bring health benefits. Another improvement, particularly for mental health, may emerge when a transportation mode decreases stress, anxiety, and road-rage.
Public Health (2) :
The incentive in 1900 to move from horses to human driven vehicles had a safety aspect. Although they seem quaint and relatively slow, horse-drawn wagons were not stable and accident prone. Horse and pedestrian fatalities were also common. About the same number of people were killed in New York City in 1900 in horse-pedestrian collisions, as were killed in 2015 by car-pedestrian interactions. Considering the momentous change in population, horses were a clear danger to those on foot.
Although the recent death of a pedestrian in Arizona by an autonomous vehicle is still topical, people overlook that on that same day (March 19, 2018), 120 people died in automobile related incidents. The push to safety, expressed in campaigns like Vision 2020 is likely to propel the technology. Today, 94% of today’s accidents are attributed to human error. In 2016 there were more than 37,000 fatalities plus 6,827 pedestrian and bicycles deaths. Worldwide, 1.2 million people lose their lives in automobile accidents. This may be the largest man-made public health crisis we have ever faced.
Conspicuous Consumption Sea-Change?
To the inquiry of ‘when’ the autonomous vehicle will go mainstream and the problems it will solve, we add a final footnote.
Wealthy people were the first to adopt the human operated vehicle, and car ownership was initially known as “the rich man’s toy.” Cars have continued to be a status symbol, fueled by advertising, at least until now.
Over the next decade there could be a sea-change. Since they began just six or seven years ago, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have reduced the need, and sometimes the desire, to own personal vehicles. Few rideshare passengers care about the type of vehicle that picks them up; it is the convenience and ease of use that matters. Scooters, a more recent entry, are also shifting perceptions. It is important to watch these trends, because urban mobility could operate in the future more as a service, like electricity or water.
If that is the case, AVs could roll out quickly. They are to future cities what human driven vehicles (HDV) are to horses.