On the topic of fully autonomous vehicles operating driverless on our streets and highways, I have to admit to being an anticipating cynic. Anticipating in the fact that autonomous vehicles are inevitable, in fact, they are already among us.  Cynical for any number of reasons, acceptance and critical mass, technology challenges, especially in vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication, security, GPS and mapping accuracy…you name it.  There were also moral and ethical concerns in terms of how a fully automated vehicle would handle determine what to avoid on a street and what to assign less importance to.


Then I was convinced.  Lawrence Burns from Google and the University of Michigan laid the future out very clearly and understandably for me.  At the Best Practices for Automotive Conference held in Detroit in October.  He stated that the “DNA” of the automobile culture was evolving and changing from among other things, combustion engines, oil based fuels and mechanical attributes. Vehicles were personally owned, general purposed, i.e. sedan, sports car, pick-up truck and “human” operated. That is the world we all know and understand.


The “new” DNA looks very different.  I stop short of saying “it will be” and rather choose to say that it may be a world of electric drive and electric motors combined with other non-fossil fuel energy sources.  It certainly will be electronic and digital and it will be connected and coordinated. It will be “shared”, and since it is shared it can be tailored to the immediate purpose required and it WILL be driverless.


We have already be made aware of some of the important consumer and business benefits derived from this new DNA…namely lower insurance costs, crash avoidance, networked vehicles and associated potential commerce such as smart fueling and smart parking, to name a few.  Other significant benefits will accrue to vehicle fleets in terms operational efficiency, business effectiveness and maintenance. 


In short the “new DNA” will lead us to a driverless world that is safer, more convenient, more productive, more personalized and more affordable.  More affordable, means better use of both personal and business capital…businesses can operate fewer vehicles to deliver the same volume of work and transportation…today’s gating factor is the human driver.  Private owners can take advantage of transportation as needed and not invest their hard won personal capital in a vehicle that sits inactive in the garage 85% of the time.  And that will have a tremendous impact on or roads and the environment, not to mention impact on much big business such as oil stocks and oil and gas companies and their related outlets.


Of course, not sure how us “old fossil car guys and ladies” will adapt. However I did see, understand and accept how the new DNA would look!


Then the Sunday newspaper arrived and with it a local commentary from an associate professor of Urban Studies and Planning from Wayne State University here is Detroit.  Professor Rayman Mohamed made some very interesting observations regarding the self-driving car.  His article “How self-driving cars will upend life, exacerbate sprawl and change how we show and work was a bit of a correction in my newfound conviction.


He states that current argument of higher fuel costs will make suburban and exurban living too expensive and that today’s young prefer urban amenities while older retired  people seek the convenience of large cities is  more than a little “off base” and ignores the disruptive  effects of emerging technologies.  Professor Mohamed indicates that these disruptive effects will be to make driving “less” expensive which will perpetuate and even expand a suburban lifestyle.


Efficient utilization of shared cars will make traveling to and from work more productive and enjoyable.  All the usual errands can be combined with personal activities, such as social interaction, reading or hobbies.  The eventual arrival of ordering driverless transportation from you smart phone and having it arrive promptly will result in “more” driving, albeit with fewer vehicles.


You could send you car home alone rather than pay for expensive urban parking, more driving.  Real estate necessary for parking while shopping will decrease, leading to other uses which may attract and encourage still further “driving”.  Deliver of goods may become even easier in the driverless world…you could send you driverless vehicle to the big box store to pick up your purchase…the possibility may be more driving since the vehicle does the work and planning your route for personal efficiency and convenience becomes less important…read this to predict more driving.


And how do we build and maintain roads for a smaller pool of vehicles that bring in less gasoline taxes and registration fees?  And of course there will be environmental benefits, but one wonders if we merely exchange on environmental impact for another?  Carbon emissions will certainly be lowered with electric and fewer vehicles overall…but what about rural sprawl that will impact wildlife and the important rural environment and beauty?  Policy makers will have to shift their thinking from vehicle fees and fuel taxes to fees based on the use of roads. 


All in all, the cost, safety and time efficiency of tomorrows driverless cars will make todays challenges of funding transportation infrastructure seem like a piece of cake.


I was a cynic and then I was convinced or maybe just a recovering cynic.  Now I find myself not being a cynic again, but opening my eyes in wonder…the world is always in balance…the positives always come with challenges…nothing changes…just the canvas!

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