Uber and the Automated Car: A Slow Unveiling of our Transportation Future – Part 2

Google's Self Driving Car Project prototype. Image courtesy of Google.

In Part One of Uber and the Automated Car we learned a brief overview of Uber’s model, and began to look at the sharing community and how this new and rapidly growing sector is taking over traditional business models. In this final section, we will look at the progresses of the “self-driving” car, and how these two worlds will coalesce into a paradigm shifting future.

Look Mom, No Hands

Will society be waiting a while before human drivers are replaced with automated cars? Not exactly. A report by the Conference Board of Canada1 states that by “2025 several manufacturers have indicated that they expect to have fully autonomous vehicles.” Tesla motors has already released a software update that allows an “autopilot” mode where the driver can fully remove his/her hands from the steering wheel and feet from the pedals and allow the car to drive for them. That is happening now, and through a software update no less. That means that consumers didn’t even have to buy the newest model to get access to this feature.

And while a Tesla is still a far off purchase for most, this shift isn’t new, and is being heralded in by several other car manufacturers—Volvo for instance, has just unveiled “pilot assist” in its new models—who speak of two different modes of transport: guardian-angel technology and “full” automation (such as Tesla above). Guardian-angel technology is already in many new vehicles, and includes features like auto lane correction, and collision detection (stopping a car from rear-ending another vehicle automatically). It is thought that these subtle changes will help psychologically ease consumers into fully automated vehicles.

Individuals may say that guardian-angel technologies still require a human to be present and they are correct, but the systems are evolving at an alarmingly rapid pace, and because this growth is happening in pieces here or there, no full picture is painted at one time, be it due to the fact that the car is still in concept mode to work out all the kinks (Google) or it is far too expensive for a standard user (Tesla). It is important to clarify here though that Tesla’s “autopilot” feature is not the same as Google’s self-driving, fully autonomous car, as the former still requires the driver to be present and aware (much like cruise control).

The other comment that continues to arise in this discussion revolves around the safety of autonomous cars. It is frequently reported that autonomous cars will drastically reduce accidents, as the majority of accidents are because of human error. Falling asleep at the wheel, drinking and driving, texting or being otherwise preoccupied by something other than the road, speed, a whole host of factors that are all human related can and will be prevented by autonomous cars. The biggest hurdle to this, of course, is dealing with those on the road who still drive a manual or non-autonomous car, as was proven recently by the tragic accident while a Tesla vehicle was in autopilot that cost a man his life. Even so, Tesla and other car companies have modelled their autopilot modes in ways that are far ahead of human beings in driver safety, utilizing hive minds to communicate with each other about road conditions, issues coming ahead, worrisome events to avoid. In fact, one of the large arguments agains this slow shift to autonomous cars with stop-gaps in between, is that, in the case of the Tesla crash, had the truck that collided with the Tesla also been an autonomous car, it is argued the crash would have never happened, as the two would have spoken to each other and not collided.

Naturally, there will be hiccups, especially concerning liability issues, but these are aspects that won’t take shape until automated cars are more common on the roads and precedents have been made. Remember, the prediction is 2025, giving us roughly nine years to hone what has already been a revolutionary short period of time for development thus far.

 

Lifting The Veil

The question then becomes, what does Uber have to do with the autonomous vehicle? The coalescence between these two technologies, rooted in the sharing mentality, built around ease of use, and a purported interest in lowering our ecological impact, has created a perfect storm for an infrastructural change. Uber has crafted a platform that is highly successful (and a highly volatile subject) for users to meet their needs quickly.

Imagine an infrastructure where you step outside your door to get groceries and tap a button on an app you have on your smartphone which hails an automated vehicle. This car is either parked nearby (laterally, calling the first car in the line, vastly reducing parking requirements in cities) or is already out and driving after dropping off a fare. That car pulls up in front of you, the doors unlock, you enter, sit and enjoy the trip doing something meaningful with your time like reading a book or working. You arrive at your destination, buy your groceries and repeat the process to go home. Imagine that all these cars are electric and return to their garage when they need to recharge.

It is hard not to see the massive benefits to this scenario: not having to own and maintain your own vehicle, the economic benefits of car sharing services, and the ability to shrink our roads down as congestion is slowly dismantled, are just a handful. Not to mention the huge impact around parking space requirements—something that significantly impacts contemporary urban design in every way— as well as the fact that removing user error from vehicles will save millions of lives. The most mind-blowing part of the whole equation is that as we use Uber in our respective cities, we are feeding all the necessary data that a company would need to build an autonomous fleet: where are we going; how frequently; demographic of users. Because of these data points that are collected, when the automated car rolls off the assembly line, the platform to support a massive fleet of cars will be there, with the app and years of algorithmic data to make it an unstoppable power.

Although the science is still out on whether this has a positive or negative effect on greenhouse gas emissions, studies are being conducted which show that features like congestion mitigation, automated eco-driving, platooning (cars linking to reduce aerodynamic drag)2, to name a few, could be massive boons to our environment. This is the future of the automobile. Just as the horse and carriage was upended by the Model T, automation will be the final nail in our current mode of transportation.

Automated vehicles are the future of transportation, and the Uber model, much like Netflix and streaming on-demand video, cannot be unseen or un-lived. Millennials are beginning to be the driving force in the market and they have made a resounding point that they want shareable services. They want to know that they are minimizing their footprint in the world through connectivity. They want the thrill of something new, and it is well documented that the millennial generation is more focused than any generation before on their spare time and maximizing all that life has to offer. Sitting and reading a book on your way into work instead of staring at glowing red brake lights for an hour would clearly be a step in the right direction.

This shift may take another century to fully take hold, but all the evidence is pointing against this theory. It is far more plausible that within twenty to twenty five years we will see pockets of cities that have a fully automated fleet of on-demand vehicles, which will follow Uber’s platform. Much like Netflix in its early days, Uber is currently in the “DVD by Mail” phase, where they are dealing with the regulation and issues that come with putting cab drivers out of work or having to register and regulate their own “staff”. Uber drivers who are currently battling for better wages or clashing with taxi companies are fighting a battle of mutual destruction, for there will come a day when it is economically feasible for drivers to drop out altogether and this will forever change the face of transportation as we know it. Don’t be fooled either by the uproarious support for taxi drivers from their parent companies: if it is not Uber, it will likely be one of them who makes the first move to automated vehicles. The truth of the matter is that the change is already happening, and now we will just have to wait and see who pushes through first.

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If you missed Part 1 of Uber and the Automated Car, you can read it here.

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REFERENCES

  1. Automated Vehicles: The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology; The Conference Board of Canada, Jan. 2015
  2. Help or Hindrance? The Travel, Energy and Carbon Impacts of Highly Automated Vehicles; Zia Wadud, Don MacKenzie, Paul Leiby, Dec. 2015

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Jeremy Senko is happily lost in the world of theoretical architecture and design. He is forever a student at heart, consistently reading, experiencing and learning about the world he inhabits. More specifically, he works as an Interior Designer in Vancouver and plays an active part in bettering the environments we live in.

4 comments

  1. There are some great things coming our way. Autonomous electric car travel will be a boon for the average citizen and bane for domestic airline flights. Instead of flying to New York, I would be able to have the car get me there overnight. Driving to Vancouver or San Francisco in a couple days would be possible. Another killer app may be the automated RV or luxury coach. For a fraction of the cost of traditional travel and none of the hassle, a family or group of friends can do long distance continental travel at a fraction of the cost of taking the train or a plane. One Netflix binge later and you have made it to Las Vegas!

  2. It will be interesting so see how things develop, I’ll throw out some semi random thoughts.

    I can see a big disruption, the transportation industry (building/fixing/selling/maintenance/fuel/oil/driving/insuring) uses/creates a lot of jobs, for better or worse, not having or a greatly reduced workforce in those area’s frees up a lot of labour, what will all those people do, more leisure time I hope?

    A second though point, is how it will impact the design of our cities? It will be great for our seniors, they can age in place instead of being pretty much forced into a retirement home when they are no longer able to drive/maintain a drivers license, but with more people staying in their homes, does this put an even higher pressure on house prices? But maybe reducing the disincentives (time lost/spent driving in traffic), will make living far away from your job/school more palatable, and more development and more people will end up moving beyond the sub and exurbs and into less populated areas.

    Either way, I look forward to seeing how things develop, I see lots of exiting opportunities.

  3. You keep saying things like “sharing mentality”. There is no sharing in this model. Its just like taxis. You rent them them short term. Renting economy would be a better description.

  4. I find the link between ride-sourcing (e.g. Uber, Lyft), and autonomous cars to be overstated. These two technologies seem to be fairly independent of one another.
    Ride-sourcing companies allow people to not own cars by having someone else’s car drive them around–but this has always been the case through the presence of taxis. Ride-sourcing companies just made it a bit easier/faster/cheaper.
    Likewise, autonomous cars can be owned and used by a single individual (like most cars today) or it could be owned by one person, but used by many (like a car-sharing car, or a taxi)–the latter happens today too!
    All that to say, I don’t see why the two technologies would combine to create this magic phenomenon of people that suddenly don’t want to own their own cars. While I hope that this will be the case (as individual car ownership is incredibly wasteful from a resource and land use point of view), I don’t see why that shift would happen as a result of these two technologies.

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