Shifting gears: The transportation revelation of autonomous vehicles
The future of driving is, well, not driving.
Excerpt from "AUTONOMY: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — And How It Will Reshape Our World," by Lawrence D. Burns and Christopher Shulgan. Copyright 2018 by Lawrence D. Burns. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The way we get around is changing. For the first time in 130 years, we’re in the midst of a major transformation in automobile transportation. In contrast to the personally owned, gasoline-powered, human-driven vehicles that have dominated the last century, we’re transitioning to mobility services based on electric-powered and driverless vehicles, paid for by trip or through subscriptions.
Summoning a ride will happen with the touch of an app. The vehicle that arrives won’t have a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. Most trips will happen in electric vehicles tailored to comfortably seat two people, since most trips we make happen solo or with just one other person. All this — and transportation is going to cost us just a fraction of what it ever did before.
This book chronicles the origins of the coming transformation. The changes I describe use current technology to solve the transportation problem in a different way. We don’t often consider transportation a problem, but it is. Without giving it much thought, every day, every one of us considers the dilemma of how to get where we want to go when we want to be there. We come up with various solutions. For more than a century, the predominant solution in North America has been the personally owned, gas-powered, human-operated automobile. But that particular answer has caused numerous issues.
We’ve structured our transportation in such a manner that most working adults believe that owning and maintaining their own vehicles is integral to their full participation in contemporary society. Yet, American automobiles sit unused about 95 percent of the time.
When we do drive those vehicles, they’re terribly inefficient. More than 95 percent of the automobiles sold in the United States today are propelled by internal combustion engines that use gasoline. Less than 30 percent of the energy from the gasoline you put in your car is used to move it down the road. The rest of the energy is wasted as heat and sound, or used to power accessories like headlights, radios and air conditioners. Because typical vehicles weigh around 3,000 pounds and typical people weigh around 150 pounds, only about 5 percent of the gasoline energy translated into motion is used to move the driver, which amounts to just 1.5 percent of the total energy in gasoline.
These overbuilt vehicles are dangerous, because they’re heavy. The World Health Organization estimates that auto crashes around the world kill 1.3 million people a year. In 2016 alone, 37,461 Americans were killed in auto crashes, contributing to make unintentional injuries the leading cause of death for Americans in the first half of life.
Using your vehicles just 5 percent of the time means that you have to figure out a place to store them the other 95 percent. So, you need to devote a good chunk of your home to a garage (and driveway), and not only that — where you work has to reserve space for your car, too. As does your favorite shopping mall, your dentist’s office, the stadium for your favorite sports team, your city’s streets — the list goes on. So we pave over big swaths of valuable real estate in our cities, creating asphalt heat islands that elevate urban temperatures and may contribute to climate change.
All of which is why Morgan Stanley financial analyst Adam Jonas calls the automobile "the world’s most underutilized asset" and the auto industry "the most disruptable business on earth." It’s why Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes says, "In almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane."