Self-driving vehicles unlock efficiency possibilities

Consider Streetline, a company whose street-level sensors and mobile apps feed real-time information to drivers for tasks such as finding the nearest available parking space. According to a 2012 International Parking Institute survey, thirty percent of city traffic is attributed to drivers looking for spaces. Together with automation, connected technologies like those offered by Streetline could result in a more efficient system, reducing traffic congestion and time spent searching for spaces.

Another exciting example is SARTRE, Safe Road Trains for the Environment. The three-year project of Volvo in Europe concluded this past fall, demonstrating the ability to “platoon” vehicles on an open highway. A lead truck plus three cars -- all equipped with cameras, radar, sensors, wireless technology -- traveled at speeds of 60mph, often only 13 feet apart from one another, all while the platoon reaped the fuel efficiencies of reduced drag and the drivers sat back and relaxed, hands free.

This technology isn’t just on the horizon or confined to noteworthy pilot projects such as SARTRE. It’s here now. Google and Audi both have licenses to test autonomous vehicles on the roads of Nevada and California. At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Toyota and Audi unveiled automated technologies for their future models, while Ford showcased the newest version of its Ford Sync platform and even an open mobile app developer program. That trend is expected to continue with more announcements at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

And what is RMI’s interest in autonomous vehicles? We’ll explore that question in forthcoming blogs, especially looking at implications for energy efficiency, fuel consumption, carbon emissions, and vehicle miles traveled. What whole-system efficiencies might be achieved if we take the best of vehicle automation and merge it with the best of connected vehicle technology? Such technologies are already helping to “save us from ourselves” with regards to safety. Can they also help us reap efficiencies that benefit people and the planet?

We don’t pretend to paint a rose-colored, oversimplified futuristic picture. There are challenges to achieving such a reality, necessary steps to take to get there, and the potential for unintended negative consequences we must consider. But the prospect of a “car and no driver” scenario is coming sooner than later, and we must be prepared to capitalize on its benefits and opportunities, even as we consider its implications.