Heaven versus Hell – time to make our autonomous vehicle choices

According to Robin Chase, founder of the Zipcar vehicle rental club, the first truly autonomous vehicles could be nipping around the streets of major global cities as early as 2020, Antony Oliver reports.

Speaking at the recent Infrastructure Investor Global Summit in Berlin, she made clear that the use of autonomous vehicles will be the fastest route towards the electrification of passenger miles.

And while I have no doubt that the much-discussed driverless vehicle control revolution will be with us eventually, my experience of travelling around the streets of London suggests that 2020 might be slightly optimistic in all but the simplest of locations.

In simple terms, for all the fabulous technology being developed by the likes of Tesla and Google Waymo, a quick look at the unpredictable and almost chaotic interaction between cars, humans, bikes and traffic lights demonstrates that it is not a simple problem to solve.

However, while setting out her vision for autonomy, Chase pointed out that, regardless of the scale of the challenge, we absolutely have to take a proactive approach and carefully plan the shape of this future if we are to achieve the Heaven of safe, clean, congestion free transport.

In fact, a future vision of autonomous vehicle Hell, she warned, was waiting if we simply left the technology to develop on its own and in potentially the wrong direction.

That means embracing a completely new approach to the business of personal travel and of goods delivery. The development of autonomous vehicles is not simply a matter of replacing the current car fleet and business model with a bolt-on driverless version. It simply will not work.

The reality is that to achieve her vision of autonomous vehicle Heaven, car manufacturers must be forced to bite the bullet, move away from the business of selling vehicles and embrace and new service-based model of providing, maintaining and operating vehicle capacity.

Likewise, cities themselves must change. Rather than dominating planning by the needs of the industrial sector, city development must focus on the need to serve communities and provide clean air, safe spaces and congestion free transport systems.

All of which is less to do with technology and more to do with embracing a culture of change.

At the heart of this transition are not individual autonomous vehicle but FAVES - fleets of autonomous vehicles, each serving different purposes, but linked up and working together to service the city and its communities.

Chase set out her five-year vision for such a cultural shift; to convert from the current model in which cities like, say Houston, devote up to 65% of available land space to roads and car parking. The transition starts with a pilot scheme with around 100 small vehicle in an early adopting city to demonstrates that the technology can work.

This will expand rapidly and after year two will start to shift culture barriers. Using fleets of autonomous vehicles the capacity will be there to transport and deliver at will across the city to the extent that second car ownership starts to fall.

Fewer, better utilised vehicles will allow road space and car parks to be removed, freeing up land for active and recreational use. Yet convenience and economic returns will mean that by year five people are actually abandoning primary car ownership.

The success of the pilot, she predicted would quickly see other cities start to follow and adopt FAVES, driven by peer pressure - the need for cities to remain competitive, modern and innovative and the need to provide the best, cleanest environment for citizens.

Fundamentally the key to the success of this future is ensuring that the autonomous vehicle revolution actually works for us – delivering personal convenience alongside the wider societal benefits and making it a technology that we all demand rather than endure.

The Heavenly future she said is about having choices. Having access to a luxury car when you want it, or a practical car when you need it; being able to spend travel time more productively and thus less time away from friends and family. It succeeds by embracing a culture that values the freedom that technology brings rather than the technology itself.

What do you think? Let us know! If you have a view point, drop us a line jt@footprint.digital

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