The future of private transport - publicly owned vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are almost here. They're being field tested and most experts expect production release to consumers before 2020. What will the future of private transport look like when autonomous vehicles are introduced?
January 27 2016

I'm a car enthusiast.  I love the sound of the current car especially V8's.  That bass growl as these fossil fuel burning beasts accellarate pulls on my heart strings and stirs something primal within.  When solar powered prototypes first started to appear, I could see the writting on the walls.  Then there was talk of nuclear powered cars (atm lol).  My dad had this crazy crazy thing about magnet motors and essentially perpetual motion (more lols).  The whole idea of magnet motors and their enormous torque and quiet operation was a punch in the guts for me.

I'm a technologist, born in the birth era of the PC.  As a teenager I suckled on the teat of the 8086 PC, with it's CGA screen.  I grew up fascinated in space and cars and personal computing and dinosaurs (what's that to do with technology?  Not a whole lot on the surface, but I'm a boy and as a father to boys I've learned all boys love dinosaurs - girls too).  I started to think about where cars would be going.

Years later I'm still thinking about where driving is heading, and how we will be transported.

I'm not sure when exactly I started thinking of the ideas I'm going to mention here, but I'm pretty sure it was well over a decade ago.  The original ideas have evolved, as the sci-fi of tomorrow becomes the reality of today.

Here are some issues and points I want to talk about:

  1. What will private transport look like in a decade
  2. How will we get to autonomous vehicles dominating our roads, and
  3. Will enthusiasts be able to continue to control their own vehicles

What will private transport look like in a decade?

We're already well on the path to autonomous vehicles and this is pretty obviously the future of private transport.  GoogleMercedesToyota, and many more have been developing their version of the autonomous car for years.  As mentioned in the Toyota article linked just above, we're not far from autonomous cars on our roads, maybe 5 years - Toyota want autonomous cars on the road by 2020.

I think the trend toward hybrid and electric cars are on the rise too and I think we'll see our autonomous vehicles as electric vehicles.

A few years ago we were introduced to the taxi breaking app Uber.  This service provides joe-everyman the ability to provide taxi-like services to customer via an App that is used by the customer to indicate a destination.

I see autonomous vehicles as shared vehicles, stored in a hub in each community, rather like a multi-level carpark - pretty much exactly that.  When you want a vehicle you whip out your app and call it.  The nearest available appropriate (sufficiently charged) vehicle will be at your door in a few minutes*.  There might even be a ride-sharing option.  You'll then be charged exactly like you would with Uber.

Infrastructure will change too.  As manually driven cars are phased out, so will be the need for traffic lights (at least in a majority of situations).  Cars will talk to each other than work out who has should change lanes or merge at what time.   This opens up the possibility of higher top speeds and certainly higher average speeds, as a city commute changes from an average 25-30km/hr to closer to the speed limited 50-60 km/hr (and more, where 90-100 km/hr freeways are included).

One of the cool things (besides all the other really cool things I've just talked about!) is the possibility of the autonomous cars linking together to form "trains" (or chains) on highways, where a group of cars are all on one stretch of highway for a period of time.  Individual cars (pods) could drop off as the exit approaches, and likewise other cars could join.  There could even be train style loco's that are specially designed to do the majority of the pulling.  Or maybe cars could hook up to Trucks with spare capacity.

How will we get autonomous vehicles dominating our roads?

Obviously we can't just flick a switch an everyone is in an electronic vehicle.  It's not even practical to retrofit autonomous kits to existing human driven cars.  Any system would need to be gradually introduced.  Here are some steps we I think we need to take:

  • Any autonomous car must be able to drive on roads with human drivers.
  • Start building the infrastructure for the car storage facilities now and slowing increasing the stock of vehicles in it's cache.
  • Stop building manually driven cars.  This new model doesn't include buying depreciating assets, so the poor won't suffer.   There will still be public transport too.
  • Stop licensing new drivers* (See my section on enthusiast driving).

Will enthusiasts be able to continue to control their own vehicles?

For some driving is more than transportation.  For some driving is a hobby and a passion.  There is enjoyed physicality in controlling a 1000+kg piece of engineering along a winding road and varying terrain.  I'm one of those people that just love going out for a drive through the countryside.  Not to see the scenery, but feel a part of it via feedback through my steering wheel and the sensation experience by the "seat of the pants".

I think, for a while yet at least, that we should not take this away from people.  What should be introduced is a "recreational license", much like a pilots license.  This license will be appropriately prohibitively expensive to obtain and maintain such that it is only for those who really appreciate the art of driving.  It could also be for those that truly wish to get "off the beaten track" and do some 4WD.

These driving licenses will require logbooks and yearly renewals.  I see them being like pilots licenses are now.  Rather expensive to obtain - as will be the vehicles they are licensing for.

Motor racing licenses should still exist and I see no reason why motorsport on closed circuits in human operated cars cannot continue.

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