When industry watchers of self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), try to focus on the trends toward autonomy, they often find their attention expanded to a wider range of issues. In fact, the idea that AVs are an integral element in the much larger picture of future mobility is gaining traction across various industries, sciences and organizations.
Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) is a nonprofit organization composed primarily of military and business leaders determined to develop and advocate for policies that improve America’s energy security by curtailing our dependence on oil. Think electric. Last year, SAFE put together a blue-ribbon panel of experts to study the testing of AVs, making recommendations for testing autonomous cars in real-world conditions. They announced those findings to the media at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
Why would an organization with a mission to curb oil consumption care about the development of autonomous technology? Why is the ride-hailing service Uber buying autonomous technology startups like Otto? Why are carmakers, such as Volvo, getting into car sharing?
Attending press conferences at this year’s CES was something like attending a future-mobility spiritual revival. All that was missing were people jumping out of their seats yelling, "I’ve seen the light!" The light in this instance was the confluence of self-driving cars, electric propulsion and car sharing as the three legs of future mobility, each depending on the other two to help push it forward.
Connecting the Dots
On the surface — and other than having to do with cars — AVs, electric propulsion and car sharing might seem unrelated. Indeed, they all began as separate entities with individual goals. However, as each has matured, it’s begun barreling toward the others to fulfill an important need: future urban transportation.
As metro populations grow ever denser, streets more crowded and parking less available, today’s one-car, one-driver model for getting from place to place simply won’t be workable, particularly in an urban environment. What better answer to future mobility than electric cars that are summoned with a smartphone app and can drive themselves to pick up and drop off various passengers?
No one really knows when fully autonomous cars will be available to consumers. More than one carmaker has predicted that AVs will be ready for production in 2020. Maybe or maybe not, but the technology may have reached a point by then where a driverless car can safely operate within a limited area, such as a city center.
Although electric vehicles and hybrids have been in showrooms for 20 years, concerns about battery range have contributed to consumers’ lack of enthusiasm. Range won’t be much of an issue in concentrated city centers, however. Electric is basically ready to go. It will be even more appealing with fuel cells as the electricity source.
Ride hailing and ride sharing are already highly popular in urban areas. With ride-hailing services like Uber already positioning themselves for the advent of AVs, they should be ready to hit the ground running when driverless cars come to our streets.
What it means to you: Any urban dweller should be stoked by the prospect of using an app to call for an electric AV to run from place to place. As all three of these core-element industries continue to evolve, it is only a matter of time before even rural areas begin seeing the benefits.