When I say “drone,” people I’ve met tend to think of multicopters or military strike & reconnaissance aircraft. But there is another type of “drone” we should be thinking about as well – autonomous vehicles.
Almost every automaker is doing some version of their own autonomous vehicle – and the ones that aren’t right now have probably thought about doing it at some point. GM has their pods, Google has their self driving cars, Tesla is doing it of course, Nissan, BMW…the list goes on.
Many of these manufacturers, including Tesla and Ford, are slowly implementing individual self-driving functions – like parking and collision avoidance – into their overall model lineup. So even though Ford’s CEO says that fully autonomous vehicles could be on the road in 5 years, we’re already seeing a lot of the fruits from that technological progress on the road today.
But what will we see? This is definitely transformative and disruptive technology; the car is essentially the mechanization of the family mule, and now we are developing technology for that mechanical mule to think and act on its own. What could happen?
Certainly, we will see automated car fleets – Uber could replace all its drivers (or all its drivers could just buy automated cars), and governments could automate much of their mass-transit systems (permitting that they have developed answers for significant socioeconomical questions).
We may even see electric vehicles find a home on the automated road. Since all distances would be calculated at the start of the journey, electric vehicles could be more efficiently tasked – a central system would dole out an electric vehicle for short to mid-range hops, and gas-powered vehicles for longer distances. But that’s not all, because since this system would also be collecting data on all trips taken, we could find an average distance and capacity for each vehicle type.
“Basically, we can redefine what it means to have a “subcompact” car, according to more fine-grain metrics than we’ve ever had before.”
We could use this data to optimize battery sizes – so for instance, if we found out that most trips taken under 25 miles only carried 2 passengers, we could optimize the battery and motor configuration to a certain weight and size class. Basically, we can redefine what it means to have a “subcompact” car, according to more fine-grain metrics than we’ve ever had before.
What other changes could automation bring?
With greater intelligence, comes the ability to communicate. Vehicles, once given intelligence, will know to talk with one another, relaying traffic signals and intentions across the entire road network. If a vehicle wants to turn right, or get off at the next off-ramp, it can signal its intention to do so to all nearby vehicles, which will respond in kind by moving out of the way. When they do so, they will also broadcast their intentions. In this way, one can visualize a highway traffic system as a series of nodal structures propagating out from decision points.
This isn’t the only data that these vehicles could send, of course. Everything from the road conditions, such as wear & tear, potholes, etc, would be sensed by individual vehicles and relayed back through the traffic stream. This is not only so following vehicles can get an understanding of the road ahead, but also so that centralized Traffic Control Centers could redirect traffic around significant weather or construction events, see and set minimum and maximum traffic speeds, etc.
With all of this automation, it’s important to point out that there will still be stick shifts. People will still want to drive their own cars at least sometimes, so traffic system will have to be able to respond to cars and events that do not follow a pre-determined script.
“What a strange site wouldn’t it be to walk around at night, and see empty cars moving and parking themselves across the city, as if guided by some invisible hand?”
Events that are regular, however, like rush hour, can be accounted for. Vehicles can be repositioned during off-peak hours to be better prepared for the following morning. What a strange site wouldn’t it be to walk around at night, and see empty cars moving and parking themselves across the city, as if guided by some invisible hand?
These re-allocations of resources and optimization tools that we will have access to will mean that in the future, we can look forward to less traffic, shortages, system outages, errant drivers, broken equipment, etc.
. Whatever system we develop will need to be both durable and adaptable. The world can change in an instant, and having inflexible systems means they could shatter, snarling roadways and escape routes during a crisis. Our systems will have to eventually be able to do a little thinking for themselves, because they will have to deal with problems that we cannot possibly imagine.
However, some of these problems, we can imagine, and others we can already see.
Continued in The Future is Drone – Part Two
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