On October 21, social media was abuzz on what was dubbed Back to the Future Day, the day Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled ahead to in the second film. The movie, like many futuristic representations in film and television, didn’t quite hit the mark. We’re still waiting for those flying cars.
It begs the question, though: What is the future of road travel? Are we living it now with the emergence of driverless cars? Will there be yet another revolutionary technology that we can’t even fathom?
No need to guess. The future of vehicular and road technology is already here today.
Is Driving Our Preferred Method of Travel?
You know the scenario all too well: You’re sitting in your car after work, eager to get home, but you’re caught in bumper-to-bumper gridlock. As you and a parade of other vehicles slowly inch along the highway, you can’t help but wonder whether there are just too many cars on the road.
The answer is yes and no. There’s actually a phenomenon called “peak car” that addresses this very concern. Thomas Frey at Futurist Speaker defines the term as when “the number of cars in the world reach its peak and auto sales overall begin to decline.” Frey points to 2007 as the year of peak car, but Brad Plumer at Vox suggests we’ve yet to hit peak car, despite the popularity of ridesharing services such as Sidecar, Lyft and Uber.
Plumer shares a great chart (here) that shows September 2015 had some of the highest 12-month rolling averages for road travel in a very long time, marking a 4.3 percent leap from just a year prior.
In other words, Americans are driving more.
Why? “There are more people in the United States with each passing year, which generally means more drivers,” Plumber of Vox explains. All those claims of peak car in 2007 (others put it at 2008) failed to take into account economic circumstances, he says.
“The 2008 recession had far-reaching impacts: It meant that fewer people had jobs and fewer people were commuting to work. Many younger Americans weren’t making enough money to buy their own cars. There was less truck traffic on the road. But now that the economy’s picking up again, driving is going up with it.”
What About Bikes?
An economic recession would have given millions of people a good reason to switch to pedal power, too, right? Bikes are far cheaper modes of transport than cars, and most American cities have made efforts to become more bike-friendly in the last decade.
But bikes don’t seem to have caught on all that well. Walker Angell of streets.mn, a site about Minnesota transportation, points to a study from the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) that found people have been buying and riding fewer and fewer bikes for the past 14 years.
The NBDA reported that 43.1 million people owned a bicycle in 2000. That’s 148 riders for each thousand people. However, as of 2014, the number dropped to just 35.6 million bike owners, now just 111 riders for each thousand people.
Angell muses that a small core of bikers have given the rest of the urban cycling world a bad name. “Perhaps most of all they don’t want to be associated with ‘those cyclists’ — the ones who run red lights when others have right-of-way or block traffic because they-have-a-right-to-the-road,” Angell writes.
“…They don’t want to be associated with people who have irritatingly bright blinkie strobe lights that blind them when they’re driving. They don’t want to be confused with people whose common pose is an anti-social fist up in the air gesticulating to the car that just passed them too close.”
That may not be a problem in Boulder, though. Erica Meltzer at the Daily Camera reported this summer about the city’s right-sizing pilot program, a test that saw four city roads shrink to increase the size of bike lanes. Those who feel nervous riding along skinny, narrow bike paths can now be more secure, especially since the roads targeted get an average of 15,000 to 20,000 trucks and cars a day on those streets alone. (By September, the Boulder City Council had begun to roll back some of the right-sizing program.)
So, it appears that overall many people still prefer driving over biking as their primary means of transportation. That seems unlikely to change, and this is why some of the biggest innovations in personal transportation involve vehicles. No flying cars yet, but there are some cool things on the horizon.
The Self-Driving Car
Self-driving car technology is still very much in the test phase, but it could get to market within a few years.
Jeffrey Miller of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers writes at Live Science that one major component to developing self-driving cars that still needs further work is vehicle-to-infrastructure (V21) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications.
“Currently, self-driving vehicles are guided by computer vision technology — whether it’s Lidar/Ridar (laser or radar technology) or camera-based sensing — when operating on public roads,” he says. “However, V2V and V2I are communication methods that will completely transform how vehicles will ‘see’ the road and interact with its environment. Both V2V and V2I are dedicated short range communications (DSRC) devices that work in the 5.9GHz band, have a range of approximately 1000 [meters] and can support private data communications as well as public.”
Miller says that car manufacturers still have a ways to go as they test V2V and V2I technology. He predicts that these technologies won’t be integrated in most self-driving cars for another three or five years.
But once manufacturers implement these technologies, self-driving cars will be less accident-prone “by allowing vehicles to be in constant communication with each other as well as their environment.”
“Key to implementation will be a high penetration rate of vehicles able to communicate with each other,” Miller says. “This will enable self-driving cars to access further data and information regarding their environment, and will work in harmony with already available sensing technology (radar or video cameras).”
Many major car manufacturers are working on their own self-driving vehicles, including Audi, Tesla and Mercedes-Benz. Uber and Google are also working to build one. Safety is a top priority for each of these companies. However, we’ve already heard stories about one of these cars getting into a fender bender.
Natasha Lomas at TechCrunch wrote a piece about the Google self-driving cars and the accidents these have been involved in: 11 total in six years. However, the company thought that human drivers in either the Google car or the other vehicle were responsible in each instance.
Overall, though, self-driving cars are still widely believed to be a safer way to drive compared to humans behind the wheel. Lauren Keating at Tech Times shares research from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found in 2014 alone that 32,675 people were involved in a fatal road accident in this country. “Because the majority of these accidents are caused by human error, self-driving cars could potentially reduce the rate of automobile-related deaths — and save the U.S. over $400 billion (2 percent of the U.S. GDP) in total annual costs of accidents,” she writes.
Keating spoke to Ryan Hagemann from TechFreedom, an automation and robotics company, who shared his thoughts on the safety of self-driving cars. “In theory, if you have 100 percent fully autonomous vehicles on the road…while you still might have accidents on the margin in rare situations, you’re basically looking at anywhere from 95 to 99.99 percent reduction in total fatalities and injuries on the road,” he says. Keating caveats this, saying that for those percentages to become a reality, every single car on the road would have to be self-driving.
While 2015 has promised a lot of innovation, the self-driving car is not going to be ready tomorrow. Bill Howard at ExtremeTech touched on the topic at the beginning of the year, estimating that these could become available as soon as 2017 or as late as 2020.
Miller, in his piece at LiveScience, agreed with the latter, writing that Nissan plans to sell its first self-driving car in 2020. “While consumers, and even some experts in the field, noted that this was an aggressive timeline, it didn’t seem like an unattainable goal,” he says.
Self-driving cars, once they become available, may have limited functions compared to later models that will come down the pike. “The first cars will be self-driving on limited access roads such as interstate highways,” Howard writes. “They won’t be self-driving in urban areas though. They may be autonomous on rural roads with crossing traffic and pedestrians, farm vehicles, and crossing cars. At the least, they’ll help drivers with the monotony of long-distance trips.”
The problem preventing more widespread travel? “There are many situations that autonomous cars are still pretty far from knowing how to handle,” says Shlomo Zilberstein, a University of Massachusetts Amherst computer science professor who spoke to Carl Franzen of Popular Mechanics. Zilberstein was involved with General Motors and the development of that company’s self-driving car.
“If we could transition to all autonomous cars tomorrow, it would be simpler than a mixed situation with most cars still having human drivers,” Zilberstein told Franzen. “…But once you have people, you have to cope with the uncertainty and complexity of human behavior.”
Until these hurdles are overcome, that 2020 release date for the first self-driving cars doesn’t sound too bad.
Impacts on Traffic
Back to the issue of sitting in traffic: If cars were self-driving, would traffic still be a problem?
It’s not yet clear, it seems. Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic’s CityLab notes that “shorter gaps between cars means more cars per lane,” which seems promising. But then he spoke with Imperial College London’s Scott Le Vine, who did a study on self-driving cars and how quickly they accelerate or decelerate.
Le Vine’s research involved a four-way intersection simulation where every fourth vehicle is driverless. He did 16 simulations in total at 60 minutes each, each replicated 100 times, and in each simulation he adjusted the rate of acceleration and deceleration. Some scenarios featured relatively jerky stops and takeoffs — akin to the speed of light rail — and others were as smooth as high-speed rail.
“Acceleration has big impacts on congestion at intersections because it describes how quickly a vehicle begins to move,” Le Vine said “…Think about being stuck behind an 18-wheeler when the light turns green. It accelerates very slowly, which means that you’re delayed much more than if you were behind a car that accelerates quickly.”
Overall, Jaffe doesn’t believe that self-driving cars are prepared for the rigors of traffic at this time. “In the baseline situation, without any driverless car, each vehicle experienced a delay of 20 seconds at the intersection,” he writes. “When driverless cars accelerated and decelerated in the style of light rail, the congestion worsened from 4 percent (21 seconds) to 50 percent (30 seconds). The number of cars traveling through the intersection — at 1,793 in the baseline scenario — also fell between 4 percent (1,724 cars) and 21 percent (1,415) cars.”
But Peter Wayner at The Atlantic believes self-driving cars can cut down on urban traffic. “The unsticking of the urban roads is one of the side effects of autonomous cars that will, in turn, change the landscape of cities — essentially eliminating one of the enduring symbols of urban life, the traffic jam full of honking cars and fuming passengers,” he writes.
“It will also redefine how we use land in the city, unleashing trillions of dollars of real estate to be used for more than storing cars. Autonomous cars are poised to save us uncountable hours of time, not just by letting us sleep as the car drives, but by unblocking the roads so they flow faster.”
He, too, used a simulation (you can watch a video of the simulation here). Essentially, Wayner believes that because self-driving taxis (or Ubers) don’t need to park often, city streets will be less clogged with cars trying to find a place to park.
“Some parking garages have installed sensors that count the number of empty spaces, and signs to share this information to keep people from driving down full aisles,” he elaborates. “When autonomous fleets take over, they’ll have access to similar databases. The cities will probably keep a few parking spaces around for cars that need to pause, but most will probably be repurposed as parks or retail locations.”
Developing Vehicles and Technology
Self-Driving Car with Breathing Commands
This fall, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper tested a form of a self-driving car, as covered by the Denver Post’s Monte Whaley. Hickenlooper took a cruise in an altered 2014 C7 Corvette Stingray designed by Sam Schmidt, a Verizon IndyCar Series Team owner and former IndyCar driver.
Schmidt, whose racing career ended after a crash in 2000 left him paralyzed, thought it would be interesting to take the Stingray and add sensors and infrared cameras on the dashboard (“which detect head tilts and command steering,” Whaley writes).
Hickenlooper, on his test drive, was able to drive by using a tube that gauges pressure. By blowing or sucking into it, he was able to slow the vehicle down or speed it up.
Although hydrogen fuel has its detractors, Honda is clinging tightly to its hydrogen car concept. Andrew P. Collins at Jalopnik writes that the car manufacturer developed a zero-emission sedan called the Clarity Fuel Cell Concept. If all goes well, it will be available for purchase in March 2016 in Japan and then come to the US.
“Hydrogen is an extremely appealing automotive fuel source because it packs tons of explosive energy without emitting the noxious chemicals a gasoline or diesel-burning car kicks out its tailpipe,” Collins explains. However, he goes on to call it “useless” because “there’s very little infrastructure to support a car that runs on anything besides gasoline, diesel or to some extent electricity.”
While many have accepted self-driving cars as the future, what about trucks, buses and other vehicles? Julia Eddington at The Zebra’s Quoted looked into this idea recently. She highlighted London’s Meridian Shuttle, a self-driving shuttle bus that made its debut earlier this year.
The Meridian Shuttle is only intended for relatively brief trips — say, from one airport terminal to another. It’s only about the size of a large golf cart, and it only travels 13 mph, but the United Kingdom is embracing self-driving tech: It has already developed an initiative for self-driving vehicles called the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment or GATEway.
The Toyota i-Road
Another solution to urban transport is the scooter-sized Toyota i-Road, which Matthew Ankeny of Gear Patrol bravely states could replace Citibikes as a means of transportation in New York City and eventually beyond. This electric vehicle can go moderately faster than the Meridian Shuttle, achieving speeds up to 37 mph.
“The i-Road has a steering wheel, two pedals, an e-brake, a seat belt and two doors,” Ankeny writes. “…At the turn of the ignition, the i-Road calibrated itself, giving a small wiggle right and left, to find center, then sat silently, ready to go. Rear-wheel turning took a second to get used to — it’s like pushing a shopping cart from the front — but the i-Road’s drive quickly became intuitive. The i-Road is far from a performance powerhouse, but it handles well enough.”
Another busy company is startup Next, which has created a whole new means of transportation. Just check out the video below of the Next in action:
In November, Guillaume Renouard at French business site L’Atelier reported on the Next Future Transportation Inc. project, which “intends to provide a modular system which both meets the requirements for future road passenger transport and offers added facilities in line with people’s new expectations,” he says. “One of the most innovative ideas is without doubt the potential for the vehicles to link together into a sort of train compartment which can be reconfigured en route. Passengers would be able to move from one car to another, switching from congested modules to areas with more space, without the ‘road train’ having to stop.”
If that sounds even too futuristic for the movies, it isn’t. Each Next module has a set of wheels, meaning that they’re good for highway, residential street and other road use. These would need to be charged after so long, but the company has already thought that far ahead, writing that when the modules hook up that they can all charge from a bigger main battery, or that each module can have its own smaller battery for charging on the go.
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop
One of the most exciting developments in transportation in recent years was when Elon Musk publicly released his designs for what he calls The Hyperloop, a regional transport system that looks like a pneumatic tube system for sending mail throughout a building.
“The Hyperloop…is a transportation network of above-ground tubes that could span hundreds of miles,” Alex Davies at Wired writes. “With extremely low air pressure inside those tubes, capsules filled with people would zip through them at near supersonic speeds.”
Davies reports that Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has signed on engineering company AECOM and vacuum company Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum to further develop Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Additionally, space engineers from SpaceX and Boeing are involved in the effort. If all goes according to plan, the first Hyperloop could be designed and made next year in California.