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The future of urban transport: The self-driving car club

I once had an interesting conversation in the pub with an old colleague about future technology predictions that will come true in our lifetime (about 2080 I hope!). There were some interesting ideas put forward such as:

  1. In our lifetime food won't be grown naturally any more but will be engineered in laboratories.
  2. In our lifetime computers will be able to write their own computer programs and they will be more effective than human written programs.
  3. In our lifetime nobody on the planet will have to go to work anymore as all jobs will be automated.

There are glimmers of the first of the above coming true after a lab grown burger made the news last year. The second prediction seems to be a way off yet thankfully for programmers the world over. The third meanwhile has been a strong emerging trend in the media recently, with the main focus being unemployment caused by automation and robotics. This Forbes Magazine article states that robots will take roughly 45% of all jobs within the next few decades. These kind of articles are prompted by recent big steps forwards in robotics, such as the Atlas humanoid robot, and the use of drones in non-military applications, for example Amazon Prime Air.

All of this media activity could easily be construed as hype designed to sell newspapers. To an extent this is true as along with the statistic '45% of all jobs will be done by robots' there is the statistic that 27% of all statistics are made up (including this one). Yesterday Google's Eric Schmidt used the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland to announce his concern that automation will bring about a global employment problem that we need to be aware of. As the tech titan's chairman, Schmidt is very well placed to make this prediction. Google's recent purchases as they look to diversify away from search include Boston Dynamics, the makers of the aforementioned Atlas robot, and Nest Labs, makers of 'smart' devices which have the capacity to learn. This means that Google is very much at the forefront of robotic automation.

A photo of Google's self driving Lexus RX 450h

Google's self driving Lexus RX 450h

Something that has been bubbling away in the background at Google Labs is their self-driving car. The test versions of Google's self-driving cars have racked up more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving which looks very impressive in this video. It's not unrealistic to think that self-driving cars could be legally 'on the road' within the next few years. But who's going to be able to afford to own one and why would they want to?

Like all new technology self-driving cars are likely to be very expensive when first released. Everyone except the very, very wealthy would be ruled out of owning one. But this is an existing issue with conventional car ownership as they are already classed as expensive purchases for most people.

One solution to this problem has been the creation of car clubs, where you pay a flat yearly membership fee and then pay by the hour to rent your car. This model of car ownership works especially well in large cities where much of the population don't need to own a car thanks to public transport alternatives, but it's a useful thing to have occasional access to. This is much more efficient financially than shelling out a huge up front cost on buying a car and then paying continuously for maintenance and tax etc whilst the car sits outside your house for most of the week. But the car club model is still not perfect. There are annoyances such as cars nearby being unavailable because someone else has booked them first, or the fact you have to walk in the rain for a mile to get to your car. A big improvement to this model is the self-driving car club.

Consider the hypothetical situation of London, or indeed any big city, 10 years in the future, where there are now thousands of driverless vehicles all roaming the streets as part of a giant self-driving car-club. You're a member of this car club and if you want a ride all you have to do is tap in where you want to go and when into your smart phone. The number of cars in the club is carefully pre-determined so that you will never have to wait more than 60 seconds for one to swing by, less if you say you are prepared to share your journey with another member of the car club. This can be achieved as the cars are all aware of each other's existence allowing them to circulate following an algorithm that optimises their geographic distribution. There are a few advantages to your self-driving car when it does arrive:

  • It doesn't make mistakes when driving - it never breaks the law, it never causes a crash and it never gets lost.
  • Is continuously aware of all of the sensor readouts from the car such as tire pressure, engine temperature, level of grip etc meaning it's far safer than cars driven by people.
  • It drives with perfect fuel efficiency.
  • It takes the most time-efficient route to your destination.
  • It is aware of traffic from central sources of information as well as from the other cars in the club so rarely gets caught in queues.

Oh, and one more thing. It's free to get a lift from a car in this self-driving car club.

Think about that last point a second. A big, cash rich company such as Google could easily afford to put thousands or even tens of thousands of self-driving cars on the road to cover a city the size of London. Much like other Google products the cost of running the self-driving car club will be offset by advertising. But not everyone is happy with this as reporting who you are to Google is a loss of privacy. In which case there are bound to be other 'paid for' alternatives where the balance of privacy and cost swings a little bit more in favour of privacy. For example BMW have recently demonstrated their own high performance self-driving car. Like Google, BMW have vast resources and no doubt other companies will move to join the self-driving car market in order to either protect their position or make money, perhaps both if they do things well.

In this hypothetical future the role of conventional human controlled road vehicles is a diminishing one. For many, including myself, this seems a future tinged with sadness as many jobs such as that of the taxi driver will be made redundant. But Eric Schmidt is right, much like mechanisation in the industrial revolution it would be difficult and ultimately pointless to block technological progress. Instead we need to be aware of it and prepare for its possible effects now so that it doesn't come as a sudden shock.

And for those of you that were thinking this future is a long way off, earlier this month Google was granted a patent for an ad powered taxi service.

The future of urban driving is the self-driving car club and the race to be first has started.

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