Will Self driving robocars really eliminate traffic jams, and individual car ownership?

Whether we like the idea or not, self driving or autonomous cars are coming.  It’s more a matter of “when” rather than “if” because enough companies are working on the technologies that we are certain they’ll work out enough bugs within a few years to make autonomous cars viable.  My question is whether this will produce a positive benefit on the environmental impact of cars and car ownership.

Recently Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google founders) proclaimed that autonomous electric cars will erase the need for individual car ownership, and lead to a nirvana of wonderfulness on the roads.

The statement came somewhere in the middle of an interview (see below) with Vinod Khosla.  I don’t have enough patience for the venture capitalist people patting themselves on the back like this to actually listen to the whole thing to get the quote.  For that we’ll turn to a CNET News article, quoting Sergey saying this: “I hope that that could really transform transportation around the world, and reduce the need for individual car ownership, the need for parking, road congestion and so forth….  With self-driving cars, you don’t really need much in the way of parking, because you don’t need one car per person. They just come and get you when you need them. You can also make much more efficient road use, if you– and this is not something we’ve developed yet, but it’s certainly been simulated by many. They can form trains. They can go at high speed, perhaps much higher than our highway speeds here.”

How would this work?  It’s actually pretty cool, and is based on two factoids:

Autonomous cars will require less road space to accommodate the same traffic.  Computer controlled autonomous cars will be capable of driving inches away from the bumper of the car ahead of them.  Humans cannot do this because we don’t have the reaction time required to do it safely.  The safe following distance rule – 1 car length per 10 miles per hour (IIRC) – is necessary because we humans don’t react very quickly to the need to slow down or avoid dangers.  Computerized sensor-filled cars can, in theory, react nearly instantly.  That shrinks the safe following distance for autonomous cars, meaning our highways can more efficiently pack cars onto the road.  The cars might be able to travel faster than humans could, for the same reason.

Autonomous cars will require fewer parking spaces to accommodate the same population.  With the current car system, individual ownership of cars, there is (rule of thumb) about 8 parking places for each car.  That’s a lot of land to tie up in parking spaces, and this factoid is one of the big unrecognized environmental costs imposed by cars.  Everyone is all worried about the carbon footprint, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and looking to electric cars to solve that problem.  What about the impact that all those parking lots have on the environment?  There is toxic runoff when it rains, and the rainwater doesn’t soak into the ground, negatively impacting soil health and reducing the water making its way into the water table.

How will autonomous cars help with that problem?  It’s that autonomous cars allow for new services to be developed providing “Mobility As A Service” where, instead of owning (and having to find parking for) a car, you hail a car from your mobility service provider.  The mobility provider service then routes a car to your location, you get in, the car drives you somewhere, after which point the car you rode in will head off to the next customer.

Electric drive is perfect autonomous cars.  Why?  The ease of refueling.  When the battery in an autonomous car is depleted, it would simply drive itself to a wireless charging station.  If it were gasoline powered, there’d have to be a robotic system refilling a gas tank.

It’s exciting and cool to think that autonomous car technology could do all this.  Our cities could become livable places with no more noisy vehicles, and no toxic fumes from burnt gasoline.  Cities today are infested with an unholy racket coming from all the infernal combustion vehicles.

But… is it that simple?

What if the services provided with autonomous vehicles explodes?  It might not just be a service for transporting our butts around town.  Autonomous vehicles might replace package delivery services.  Taking this to an extreme, what if every pizza joint (or other food places) buys their own fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles?  Or, instead of traveling to a store to buy an object, the store delivers it to you instead?  In other words, there could be an explosion in autonomous delivery vehicles.

Jeevon’s Paradox suggests a perverse result that comes from efficiency measures – that after adopting an efficiency measure, consumption goes up rather than goes down.  You adopt efficiency measures in the idea that consumption (and therefore environmental impact) decreases, but what if the higher efficiency makes you want to consume more?  Do you feel as motivated to turn off an LED light as you are to turn off an incandescent light?  Or do you think that because the LED light is so cheap to run, it doesn’t matter if you leave it turned on when you take a 2 month trip to Europe?

Do you get so addicted to autonomously delivered stuff that ….?

And will there have to be even more road space per person in order to handle all the autonomous delivery vehicles?

Refer back to these two posts I wrote summarizing Brad Templeton’s view of what Robocars will do, and how soon they’ll become commonplace.  Templeton is part of the Google Self-Driving car team.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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