Future with driverless cars 3: Private cars


This is part three of a series on changes that driverless cars may bring. I expose some of the ideas I have, mostly quite practical things. We moved project troglodyte to it’s own website, so the more patent centric recap of the Google driverless car patents can be found from there.

Below I assume that the problem has been solved completely. Driverless cars can access any part of the road network, function even when there are people darting around and can handle any weather including lots of snow and very slippery conditions. Accident levels are same or lower than currently and people are not scared to use autonomous cars.

See also: Rental vs. taxi, Mass transportation, Pirvate cars, Cargo, Parking and driving empty, Zoning Traffic volume and Externalities

While there is a clear reduction on operating cost for taxis and public transportation, private cars will only get an initial premium to purchasing price. Economic benefits will be less direct, but as mentioned in another post renting the car out when it is not needed is clearly a possibility. It is difficult to tell if  this will drive taxi and rental car operators out of business or make more people start using public transportation and rent when traveling outside the coverage area of scheduled public transportation. The optimum solution will likely depend on how population is distributed in a certain area.

Not needing to drive the car is a benefit for many, but not all. According to wikipedia depending on the severity of motion 33 to 66 % of people are susceptible to motion sickness. This limits the number of people who can read or work during a car trip and thus also limits the benefit from a driverless car. Some people also enjoy driving a vehicle and wouldn’t want to give it up.

Not everybody can drive though and these individuals have most to gain from this development, in addition to public transportation they can have the option of owning a personal car. Beside some adults either unable or unwilling to drive, children and elderly are a large group that cannot or should not drive. As an example children under the age of 15 and elderly over the age of 75 make up about 25 % of the population in Finland*.

Adults under the influence of alcohol, medication or recreational substances is a group that will greatly benefit from automated cars for their transportation. There might be adverse health effects as being able to drive might be a sufficient reason to stop drinking after the weekend and this reason will be less powerful when there is no need to worry about driving.

Private cars are needed a couple of times during the day to go to work, get back home etc. These are also times when there is maximum need for transportation, so scaling the taxi fleet to meet that demand is likely not economical, even when the cost of the driver is removed from the equation. Many of the taxis would be idle for the rest of the time and not producing. Although this is probably the situation now for many taxis and certainly is for private cars.

Even if the rush hour peak in transportation need would be flattened this might not produce efficient use of the available cars in a case where private cars would be rented when not used by their owners. If housing and places of employment are at separate areas it takes some time for the vehicles to travel back to pick up the next passenger. Thus it looks like densely built areas with mixing of commercial and residential districts may benefit from a change to driverless vehicles. That however requires that the peak is wide enough to allow a vehicle to transport several consecutive passengers during one rush hour.

While vehicle size for public transportation is driven partly by the cost of the driver there is no such link for private cars. People usually want a car large enough that they can pack the whole family, including the dog and a canoe in to it. One reason for large vehicle size is safety, a large car with big mass experiences statistically smaller accelerations in accidents and can be safer than a smaller one. A big car likely also feels safer even if it might have inferior technology and actually be less safe. If automated cars live up to their promise and accident rates become lower there is the possibility that consumers may accept smaller cars.

Energy efficiency and operating cost are currently factors that drive private car size towards smaller vehicles. When the car can also drive by itself it is possible that the yearly distance travelled by the car will increase, this would also put emphasis on the  operating cost and make smaller cars more desirable.

It is also possible that a super mini, i.e. just one person, class emerges to enable sending the car on an errand by itself. The car could for example collect food from several places and bring it back home. But to be viable a car this small would likely also require some more traditional use to be economical.

Parking is a problem in many areas. It is infact an important reason for the use of public transportation. Here driverless cars will have a considerable effect. Currently parking space needs to be within a walkable distance from the place where the driver is heading. With driverless cars it is possible to drive to the closest point accessible with the car and the car can then find a parking space on its own.

While this will eliminate driving around to find a parking space, it can increase traffic close to points of interest and increase the overall distance driven as the cars may travel fairly far when optimizing between price of driving and the price of the parking space. This may lead to situations where for a short visit the vehicle is left to drive around so that it is almost immediately available for the owner. This in turn creates a need to put a price for the use of the road network, otherwise it might be cheaper to use a holding pattern than to park.

It might still be the case that every now and then an unseen situation is found which the car can not handle on its own. Remote operation may be used in these cases if the vehicle either does not have controls or the occupants are unqualified to operate it. For control only in rare circumstances basic controls may be enough, similar to game consoles or just an application using a touch screen. This off course requires upgrades in communications infrastructure as the road network currently covers some areas that have bad or no affordable ways to transmit for example video streams.

Acknowledgment:  Thanks to Laston Kirkland for thoughtful evaluation of these ideas.