Transportation Transformation: Driving the Autonomous Future

Transportation Transformation: Driving the Autonomous Future

This piece was originally published in the July 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Christine Coogle, Project Lead, Connected Transportation Strategic Initiative, NEMA

Ms. Coogle is the former editor and social media manager at NEMA.

Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone just over ten years ago, calling it a “revolutionary and magical project”—a description that is difficult to dispute today.

In merely a decade, we went from using phones for actual phone calls to using them as personal computers for services as varied as email, audio and video streaming, social media, video games, and digital wallets. You name it, a smartphone does it. The impact this one device has had on our lives and methods of communication cannot be overstated.

A similar transition is underway in the transportation sector, though on a larger scale and perhaps in less predictable ways. Some of the same technological developments that made the smartphone possible will help create the connected transportation ecosystem of the future, and the two will be intertwined.

The transformation has already begun, with services such as Lyft and Uber allowing for door-to-door transportation service through a smartphone app. In some cities, these services have already become indispensable. When the fleets of such services become autonomous, they will likely work in tandem with existing transportation options, acting like additional subway lines or replacing certain bus routes.

When autonomous vehicles (AVs) are on the roads, apps on your mobile phone will connect you to not only your modes of transportation but also your personal preferences while you are in transit. You’ll be able to order a driverless vehicle to pick you up wherever you are, to pay for the ride, to play your favorite Spotify playlist, and even to have your daily Starbucks order ready upon arrival—all with the touch of a screen or voice command.

Of course, this is only one of many visions for the future of connected transportation. Different companies and stakeholders in the industry hold widely varying ideas of what autonomous and electric vehicles will mean for the transportation sector in the coming years—but all agree that the changes are happening fast, and it’s going to take hard work and collaboration on safe deployment and effective policy to get it right.

Utopian Vision

It seems, anecdotally at least, that the vast majority of those involved with connected transportation imagine these new technologies creating an urban and suburban utopia that is full of self-driving electric vehicles offering personalized, first-class experiences at low cost and free of traffic congestion, auto emissions, and stressful, time-sucking commutes. That future is possible, but it will require collaboration within the industry and among private and public entities to ensure the safety and expediency of the transition.

In this future, self-driving cars will be a service more than a product, potentially multiplying the two-trillion-dollar auto industry into a ten-trillion-dollar industry. Today, a significant number of vehicles are under-used, with some estimates as high as 97 percent; autonomy creates the opportunity for more continuous use. Companies such as Uber and Waymo (formerly a Google project), as well as some auto manufacturers, will own fleets offering rides—as opposed to manufacturers selling cars for individual ownership—in a model known as transportation as a service (TaaS).

Individuals who own self-driving cars will likely dispatch them to generate additional income during times when they would otherwise sit unused in a driveway or parking lot. Parking will be easier with connected vehicles and infrastructure, which will be able to communicate available parking spaces in both streets and garages.

Greater Safety, Lower Emissions

Many of those looking forward to an autonomous future are rightly enthusiastic about the potential for saving lives. Today, more than 1.25 million people worldwide die in road accidents every year, more than 37,000 of them in the United States.[1] Sensors on connected vehicles perceive what’s ahead and can react in an emergency more effectively and quickly than human drivers, potentially leading to significant decreases in road fatalities.

Connected transportation will also lead to a more environmentally friendly future. Less individual ownership means fewer vehicles on the road, which means lower emissions. Once you factor in the increasing deployment of electric vehicles and expanding use of renewables in the power grid, we could be well on our way to a zero-emission transportation system by 2030.

Health and safety improvements will be further realized through improved emergency responses. Accident notifications will be automatic and instantaneous, and emergency vehicles will be able to reach their destinations rapidly. Traffic flows will be easily adjusted, and individual vehicles will move out of the way in a coordinated fashion when receiving signals that an emergency vehicle needs to pass.

Similarly, connected transportation creates the opportunity for urban planning that prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists more than it has in the past. AVs will be able to drive much closer together than human-operated cars, meaning lanes will be much narrower, leaving more space for bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and green areas.

These changes are coming sooner than you may think. A recent RethinkX report provided an ambitious estimate that as much as 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled by 2030 will be through TaaS, largely due to the drastically lower cost of new transportation alternatives than individual car ownership. In addition to growing the industry, this shift will result in average annual savings of more than $5,600 for American families. In other words, this will mean an additional trillion dollars every year in the pockets of American consumers.[2]

Challenges and Opportunities

Along with vast promise, the future of connected transportation brings the potential for new challenges and problems. In the public sector, the most significant barriers include regulatory uncertainty at the federal level and the use of taxpayer dollars at the state and local levels to set the appropriate standards and develop transportation infrastructure as necessary.

For both the public and private sectors, cybersecurity is already a predominant concern that will only increase—not just for transportation but for the entire Internet of Things ecosystem. Those who develop these technologies must prioritize security from the start and be prepared to fix bugs and deploy updates in real time to help counter cyber threats.

Several of the benefits of AVs cannot be fully realized until there are a large number of deployed vehicles; human driver error will be of great concern in the meantime. The industry classifies vehicles in six levels of autonomy: L0 through L5, where L1 is still operated by a driver but may involve park assist and L3 can operate safely without driver engagement on a highway. Only L5 involves continuous, full autonomy, allowing all riders to disengage and sleep, read, or watch a movie while in transit. The lower levels require a driver to engage in some way, if only to take control in particular circumstances.

There is some risk in allowing a driver to relinquish the task of operating the vehicle while still requiring her to pay attention. This will complicate the obstacle posed by a lack of public approval and trust of AVs. Public perception of safety will increase with familiarity, but a few publicized incidents with L2 or L3 AVs, for example, could greatly affect drivers’ willingness to surrender control, regardless of the statistics.

Potential challenges are interwoven with opportunities for solving existing problems. Less congestion is often cited as a major benefit of connected, autonomous transportation, but it’s also possible that, because of an otherwise improved commuter experience, congestion could get much worse. More people may relocate from urban centers where they work to suburban neighborhoods because commuting would no longer result in wasted time. This would lead to a greater number of vehicles on the road for longer periods of time, creating more traffic and pollution. Avoiding negative effects of traffic and congestion will largely depend on the prioritization of rideshares, as well as accelerated deployment of electric vehicles.

There is also great concern for the future of jobs such as truck driving, which currently employs 3.5 million people in the United States alone. In the near term, new technologies will be more helpful than harmful in that area; there is currently a shortage of truck drivers, so autonomous fleets will be used to fill those gaps. It will only be a matter of time, however, before AVs replace non-autonomous fleets. In some instances, companies should be prepared to retrain their workforce for new job opportunities that may arise as a result, in place of traditional truck-driving jobs.

Scratching the Surface

Driving an intelligent transportation ecosystem that allows for safe, first-class, low-cost, zero-emissions experiences, new career opportunities, and positive urban development across the country is where collaboration and smart policy come into play. Private companies must work together and with federal, state, and local governments to make sure the deployment of new technologies is safe and effective and that it happens in tandem with necessary infrastructure development.

None of the hurdles can be overcome by a single actor. The development and wide deployment of connected, autonomous vehicles to create a safe and sustainable transportation system will require the cooperation of organizations with varying knowledge and authority.

This article only scratches the surface of the challenges and opportunities created by the transformation that the transportation sector is already undergoing. The vision of the future of transportation varies widely, but there is no question that the possibilities are numerous and thrilling.

[1] “Annual Global Road Crash Statistics.” Association for Safe International Road Travel.

[2] James Arbib and Tony Seba. Rethinking Transportation 2020–2030: The Disruption of Transportation and the Collapse of the Internal-Combustion Vehicle and Oil Industries. RethinkX, 2017. Accessed May 2017.

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