Fully Driverless Cars Will Be Ready in 2060, Report Finds

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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The impact of autonomous – driverless – vehicles is still a ways in the future, according to projections made in a new report by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI).

As for autonomous vehicles’ impacts on traffic congestion, automobile accidents, and car ownership, the VTPI report projects that driverless vehicles will have only a modest impact on these areas in the next few decades. But autonomous cars will change mobility in dramatic ways in the far future.

In the near future, driverless cars will not be a panacea or cure-all for our transport problems, despite the hype they’ve received in the press.

Therefore, Litman says, transportation planners and engineers should focus on policies supporting transit-oriented development, density, and transportation demand management – more effective ways to solve our transportation problems in the U.S.

The Landscape

Companies ranging from Google to Audi are developing and testing autonomous vehicles at a rapid pace. Initial versions of these cars are projected to hit the market in the next several years. In preparation, policymakers are getting out in front of the technology by creating rules permitting and governing self-driving vehicles.

Excitement about autonomous vehicles has been high in the engineering and planning fields, and much of the media coverage about them has been favorable. The driverless car, it’s been predicted, will result in the following benefits to mobility:

  • a reduction in traffic congestion (permitting roads to be redesigned);
  • a decrease in car ownership (and a concomitant reduction in pollution);
  • a diminished need for parking (permitting this land to be repurposed); and
  • an 80 to 90 percent reduction in automobile collisions (because humans are error-prone and computers are not).

Over-Optimistic Predictions

The VTPI report is a sober, and perhaps more realistic, look at the impacts of driverless cars on transportation planning. The main conclusion of the report, called “Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions: Implications for Transport Planning,” is that predictions that self-driving cars will soon be all over the roads are optimistic.

Litman, the author, presented his research this week at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Conference to a positive response from attendees. He previewed his report several days in advance at Mobility Lab’s TransportationCamp, to a somewhat more hostile audience (TransportationCamp’s attendees skew younger and more progressive).

“This has proven to be a very exciting subject,” Litman concedes. “Engineers tend to be really excited about [autonomous vehicles]. I think my view, though, is realistic.”

Most of the excitement over autonomous cars, and the projections made about them, concern what the VTPI report calls a “level 4” implementation of the technology. This is the kind of autonomous vehicle, Litman stated at TRB, “that you could place your 10-year-old son inside of, and it would drive him to Grandma’s house.” It is, therefore, a very mature implementation of the technology.

The cars we will see in the next few years will be “level 1″ implementations of autonomous vehicles – far less automated, without the vast networks of infrastructure needed to facilitate complete driverless operation (see below and click to zoom).

The VTPI report uses the rate of adoption of other automotive technologies such as electric-gasoline hybrid engines and automatic transmissions to make projections regarding the speed at which autonomous automobiles will become mainstream.

The report states, “Vehicle innovations tend to be implemented more slowly than for other technological change due to their high costs, strict safety requirements, and slow fleet turnover.” Acknowledging this, VTPI’s report projects that a true, level 4, driverless car will not reach market saturation, and be affordable to middle income families, until around the year 2060 or later (see below and click to zoom).

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

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