Why robot cars (autonomous vehicles), as demonstrated by Google this week (and randomly captured by Robert Scoble in the video above), matter.
1. Safety – cars would be safe if only there weren’t drivers behind the wheel. Driverless cars seldom get distracted or tired, have really fast perception-reaction times, know exactly how hard to break, and can communicate (potentially) with vehicles around them with Mobile Ad Hoc Networks. But this improves not only vehicle safety, it improves the safety and environment for pedestrians and bicyclists.
2. Capacity – ‘bots can follow other driverless cars at a significantly reduced distance, and can stay within much narrower lanes with greater accuracy. Capacity at bottlenecks should improve, both in throughput per lane and the number of lanes per unit roadwidth. These cars still need to go somewhere, so we need capacity on city streets as well as freeways, but we save space on parking (see below), and lane width everywhere. If we can reduce lane width, and have adequate capacity, we can reduce paved area and still see higher throughput. Most roadspace is not used most of the time now.
3. Vehicle diversity – Narrow and specialized cars are now more feasible with computers driving and increased overall safety. Especially if we move to cloud commuting (as below), we can have greater variety, and more precision in the fleet, with the right size car for the job.
4. Travel behavior – if the cost of traveling per trip declines (drivers need to exert less effort, and lose less effective time, since they can do something else), we would expect more trips (my taxi can take me wherever) and longer trips and more trips by robocar.
5. Land use – if acceptable trip distances increases, we would expect a greater spread of origins and destinations, (pejoratively, sprawl), just as commuter trains enable exurban living or living in a different city.
6. Parking – my car can drop me off at the front door, and go fairly remotely to park, so we don’t need to devote valuable space to parking ramps (garages) (we still need space, it is just far away), searching for parking is also less critical. On street parking can be abolished.
7. Transportation disadvantaged – children, the physically challenged, and others who cannot or should not drive, are now enabled. Parents, friends, and siblings need not shuttle children around, the vehicle can do that by itself. The differences between transit and private vehicles begin to collapse. We can serious consider giving passes to driverless taxis for the poor, since costs should drop with lower labor costs, and if the point below holds, paratransit services become much less expensive as well.
8. Reduced auto ownership – cloud commuting becomes possible.People no longer need to own a car, they can instead subscribe to a car sharing service.