A Different Way to Look at Infrastructure
One of the problems with autonomous vehicles is that in order to get maximum efficiency, all cars need to be autonomous. However, between the cost, the state of the technology, and the issues of trust standing in the way of global adoption, this future may be a long way off. Nearly every autonomous vehicle company is currently looking at how to augment existing cars to perform as autonomous vehicles. However, this wastes so much of the potential efficiency of AV’s. Wanis Kabbaj, the Director of Global Strategy for UPS envisions a variety of ways in which we can design new ways in order to accomodate autonomous vehicles in our cities.
In his TED Talk (1) Kabbaj discusses a dire need to improve urban congestion. He states that Americans spend about 29 Billion hours each year commuting. This is a huge waste of human potential and with this time applied to being happier or more productive, society as a whole would benefit greatly. While many people focus on saving this time by being able to do other things during a commute if you are not required to drive the car yourself, Kabbaj focuses on how AV’s will be able to improve efficiency and how we can better use the space in our cities to alleviate congestion.
Currently, a major problem with congestion is that cars are not filled to capacity and about 30% of congestion can be attributed to finding parking (1). Public transportation can solve these problems, however, public transportation is not as convenient as a car. You may have to stop multiple times in order to get to your destination. Therefore, he proposes a transportation system that never stops. A conjoined train of autonomous cars could travel continuously, thus saving space on the roads. These pods would then detach themselves in order to bring smaller groups of people to their destination. While conjoined, people could move among the pods and thus the train could optimize transport by telling people which pod to go to. This novel solution could be a more immediate remedy to urban congestion without requiring individuals to give up the convenience of a car.
The other major point that Kabbaj talks about is being more efficient about our use of urban space. He makes an analogy between our arteries and our cities. Both have complex networks of transportation, however, while cities are primarily 2D, arteries are 3D using all the space available for transportation. In this way, we could introduce autonomous transportation by building infrastructure above current roads. Airbus is currently researching autonomous flying taxis in order to use the space above our roads (2). Furthermore, China is looking into elevated busses built over highways (3). While busses currently offer very little incentive because you still must sit in traffic and generally are as slow as driving, these busses would offer incredible time savings over driving. Thus reducing the number of cars on the road while reducing the commute time of those riding the bus. Additional, changes to urban infrastructure could prove to alleviate the concerns that AV’s will further congest roadways as more people are able to drive.
While these ideas may help, the problem with this type of infrastructure change is getting the funding to carry out the ideas. While private companies have the funding to investigate ideas such as the flying airbus taxi, cities will be hard pressed to find funding to build elevated busses or infrastructure for accommodating flying taxis. So much money is already spent maintaining the current infrastructure, the government would have to find a way to promote the addition of this infrastructure. These solutions also do not address the trust problem either. Sure, autonomous elevated bus systems would be incredibly efficient, however, would people trust them enough to ride them and would the car operators on the road trust them enough to drive under them. Cautious drivers could cause more congestion by being wary around them. I have seen an accident on the other side of the highway effect both sides due to pure curiosity, it would be interesting to see the result of drivers seeing a bus zipping over their cars.
I think in order to introduce these changes, governments and cities will need to make real incentives for people to get over these mental blocks so we can have more universal adoption. Efficiency alone may be enough for some of the less risky solution such as the elevated bus, but for flying taxis, and pod based busses, further incentives for using these system or disincentives for not using these systems may be necessary.