Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Driverless Cars? Yes, GoogleCar, iCar, etc. are Closer than they Appear

No need for a driver's license?

Will the blind drive? 

Is this the end of accidents and insurance payments?

Will a multilingual automated car replace the taxi and handi-van?

Well, not so fast. Driverless cars are a Pandora's box of opportunities and challenges. One thing is for certain: They are coming.  First in simple versions; later on, in completely automated versions.

For example, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Nissan and VW plan to offer 2016 model year cars that do at least half of these: braking and  throttle control (e.g., Delphi adaptive cruise control), self driving in stop-and-go traffic (e.g., BMW's traffic jam assistant), lane keeping (e.g., Toyota's lane keeping assist), gear shifting, and, if legal, unoccupied self-parking after all occupants and the driver exit the car (e.g., Audi's parking demonstration.)

Goggle has developed ten Google Driverless Cars (see sample photo) that have clocked well over 300,000 miles on California roads with only two reported accidents: One when the car was read-ended at a stop light and another near Google headquarters while driven by a person.  Google has produced a short video that shows a man driving around, picking up some food at a drive through store and arriving at home, opening his door and then extending his blind person cane to find his way to his house! Google expects sales of regular cars modified by Goggle to be drivereless in 2018. (Take a look at this CNN infographic.)

These developments cannot come soon enough because US, European, Chinese and other developing world cities are chocking in traffic.  Driverless cars will be a large part of the solution. They can follow each other at a distance of 0.5 seconds (engineers call this “headway”) instead of the average human headway of 1.5 seconds. This difference from 1.5 to 0.5 seconds of headway triples the capacity of a freeway lane from 2,200 vehicles per hour to over 6,000 vehicles per hour.

Sometime between 2030 and 2040, drivereless cars will become prevalent with more than one third of them in traffic. Then selected highways and arterial streets can be converted to driverless car highways with 8 ft. wide instead of 12 ft. wide lanes because driverless cars can adhere to a tight lane discipline.

The combination of tight lanes and close headways will have huge impacts to roadway capacity. Today two lanes on the Pali Highway have a capacity of roughly 4,500 cars per hour.  With only driverless cars on them the capacity of the same exact roadbed would be about 20,000 cars per hour. More than four times improvement; this will result in continuous 50 mph traffic flow. No congestion.

The driverless car technological innovation cannot come soon enough. For all but four U.S. cities (Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) city transportation is done in private cars, vans and trucks 85% of the time or more. Telecommuting has already surpassed the share of trips by transit. Car-sharing, and intelligent, drivereless zero emission vehicles will maintain the car’s dominance here and abroad.

But before completely driverless car become ubiquitous, self parking cars will arrive.This will have a huge impact for complete parking lots because now a couple feet of clearance is required between cars for driver access.  The self-park cars will only need a couple of inches of clearance between their folded exterior mirrors. So the large parking structure at the University of Hawaii holding about 5,000 can easily store 6,000 much to the improved convenience of students and a few hundred thousand more dollars of revenue for the UH.

Recently there were rumors that a Tesla Cars-Apple Computer "affair" may be about a future (autonomous) iCar.

I have little doubt that thirty years from now my kindergartener son and his friends will be commuting in driverless electric sports cars that can reach 0-60 mph in 5 seconds, follow at a headway of under 0.5 seconds on narrow high capacity lanes, be a full office away from home or work, and still deliver an exciting drive in off-drivereless mode outside the city.  The future of transportation in the U.S. will be great as long as it does not invest on modes of the past millennium such bicycles and ordinary trains, except for limited applications where they may be both practical and cost-effective.

A shorter version of this article was originally published on February 15, 2014 in Hawaii's Filipino Chronicle.