Dr. Sven A Beiker, Executive Director, Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS)
We are living in an interesting era: the automobile seems to be being reinvented right after one of the deepest depressions since its invention more than 125 years ago. It is fascinating to observe how just a few years ago everything seemed to come to an end, and now there are self-driving, electric, talking, and shared vehicles taking center stage in the media, in politics, in trade shows, and in research labs.
So what is going on here? Can we just not get beyond this era of the automobile, the same way society did get at some point beyond horse and buggy? Can we not altogether realize that the challenges are bigger than the benefits and find something better than the shoebox-on-wheels? Well, maybe the thing is that the automobile is so much more than just a means of transportation, so much more than just a vehicle that gets us from A to B. I guess we all know, or at least feel, that the automobile is providing us with a sense of independence, freedom, and flexibility-even if we are stuck in traffic and are asking ourselves why we are doing this every day.
And because the automobile is so much more than just a means of transportation, we keep reinventing it over and over again, for the prospective benefit of us individuals, but hopefully also the benefit of society and environment. And that is exactly what the before mentioned attributes, self-driving, electric, talking, and shared, are all about. They will make automobiles–and therefore road traffic–safer, more efficient, more sustainable, and more enjoyable. But before we talk about making things better, let’s take a look at where we are at right now.
For one, we have about 33,000 people killed in road traffic accidents in the United States every year. That is, about 90 people who will not wake up tomorrow because they perished in an accident today. The problem with that is–despite the fact that every life perished is one too many–that this has become normal or acceptable. If you do a quick internet search, these numbers are being set in perspective with wars, diseases, other traffic accidents, and the like. And that shows us how bad it actually really is and that road traffic accidents are nothing else than an epidemic.
Now the other thing is that there are already so many vehicles on the road–the average one is occupied with 1.6 people–and that all these vehicles cause congestion, gridlock, and standstill. Hence, the average commuter in the U.S. loses about 36 hours every year because of this congestion, gridlock, and standstill. And that is time lost that we all would like to rather be spending with our families or friends, pursuing our hobbies, resting, or–if you must– working more. But we are stuck in traffic asking ourselves like thousands of people around us why we are doing this every day. And the problem obviously is what comes out of the automobile when it actually moves, or even if it is just stuck for that matter. The debate about climate change seems to be going into a next round and the energy resources are being depleted–shale oil and biofuels might help, but are they really the solution? Another data point that is of relevance regarding vehicle emissions is the health impact, which is estimated like something in the order of $40-70 Bn every year, mostly respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as cancer that can be linked to the operation of our automobiles.
Now, what can we do to make automobiles safer, more efficient, more sustainable, and more enjoyable? To answer that question, we should take a look at each of the topics electrification, automation, communication, and commoditization one by one.
Electrification seems to be an obvious one when talking about the future of the automobile. Many of these battery-electric, range-extended, plug-in, hybrid-electric vehicles have been introduced over the past 15 years or are about to come to a showroom near you soon. Many benefits have been claimed and we hope that most of them will turn out to be true. However, for now we need to say that we just hope they will be true, quite some of the claims that are being made need to be discussed and examined in greater detail as no-gas does not automatically mean no-emission. However, we can assume that electrification has great potential to make our automobiles more sustainable for the benefit of our health and a better environment.
Automation is another topic that has been talked about a lot in the past few years when self-driving, driverless, or autonomous vehicles were turned into a hot topic first by the media, then by legislators, and now by consumers. Actually, this topic is not as new as it seems, as automated driving has been researched in industry and academia for well over 50 years now. But still, this time we can hope that eventually the human driver will get a great deal of assistance from the computer.
However, we will need to see if these concepts will be able to live up to consumers’ expectations in everyday driving and if there will really be a relief from driving anytime soon. However, we can assume that automation has great potential to make our automobiles safer and traffic more efficient reducing the fallout from human imperfection that causes accidents or traffic congestion.
Communication should be a natural one, given this day and age where everything is connected and online all the time. So what about the connected automobile or even the internet of cars? Today’s technology certainly makes it possible to connect vehicles so that they can exchange data with one another and with a central infrastructure. And this also is not a new idea but rather a great way to apply concepts to road traffic what have been standard in air traffic for decades now. Such concepts like collision avoidance, congestion mitigation, hazard warning, or centralized traffic control become possible once all–or at least a sizable number of vehicles have a communication link to receive and send driving relevant data. However, the problem lies in the challenge of equipping new and existing vehicles quickly enough and with a universal language so that these benefits will play out in everyday traffic - that is a little bit of a who-wants-to-buy-the-first-fax-machine question and a little bit of a should-I-study-Spanish-or-Chinese decision. However, we can assume that communication has great potential to make our automobiles safer, traffic more efficient, and driving more enjoyable as vehicles will get smarter and more talkative at the same time as drivers get more aware of what is going on around them.
Commoditization has been an overused term. The question is if the automobile will become something like a refrigerator that we don’t really care too much about, we just want it to work and serve us well. One might ask if automobiles are just going the same way and we won’t care what we drive as long as we just get there! Statistics indicate that 92 percent of the automobiles in the U.S. are parked, unused at any point in time; hence some suggest we don’t identify with our cars anymore. Car sharing, ride sharing, car-free lifestyle is the latest fad. It is a fashion, that people, want to be independent and get in the car on a minutes notice, with their folks, no questions asked–which is like real denim never goes out of style. However, we can assume that car and ride sharing have great potential to cover our mobility needs very efficiently and also increase the enjoyment of mobility without caring about the 92 percent-waste. Now, this is just a quick overview of what is currently in the works at car companies, service providers, and startup companies. I am hopeful that all this will one way or another come together for a safe, sustainable, and enjoyable way to drive into the future. Clearly, we should not be so naïve to assume that everything is just waiting to be deployed, there are in fact many technology, business, legal, societal, and infrastructure questions that need to be solved. However, chances are that the future of the automobile will be a great one.