Interesting that conversation is beginning to focus on whether solar energy and other renewables are growing too fast for the current electricity generating and grid system to cope with. The basic problem is that current generating capacity cannot be ramped up and down swiftly enough to accept huge amounts of renewable energy, and we still lack storage capacity for excess power generation. Predicted to be a bigger problem in the next 5 years or so, than in 15 years when there is more renewable energy and the system has adjusted.
Autonomous vehicles will be the focus of the next MIT Enterprise Forum, Northwest Chapter, here in Seattle on October 29, 2014. You can register here. This is a subject that is racing (pun intended) toward transportation planners, trucking companies and shippers, auto manufacturers and auto owners. The idea of driverless cars, or autonomous trucks, is one that even most futurists believed was a decade or more away. But as we have written about here and here, the prospects for at least limited applications for autonomous cars and trucks for highway driving may be just around the corner.
For the shipping industry, two fundamental issues plague their future planning: safety especially related to driver fatigue, and the availability of truck drivers. Is it possible that autonomous trucks will begin to solve both of those issues? It appears so.
Mercedes recently tested their concept truck that is able to drive autonomously on open roads, using a combination of radar, sensors, GPS, and computing. As you can see in the accompanying videos, the driver is able to set the truck on auto-pilot, and the truck handles driving down the highway just fine, even with traffic and emergency vehicles in the vicinity. Mercedes labels this truck their concept 2025 vehicle, but it is quite easy to imagine that with the technology essentially ready now, we might see limited adoption in the next five years or so. The Mercedes spokesperson points out that the truck could be driven legally, in auto-pilot, in several U.S. states already.
Currently the idea is that a driver would be in the vehicle, and do other things or rest while the truck is self driving. That makes sense for now, but it is also possible to imagine a future where autonomous trucks operate completely driver free while on the highway, and pull into a driver pick-up station when they near a city, where a driver comes on board. This is not unlike the way the local pilots board in-bound ships to guide them into and out of port. Imagine a future where truck drivers are mostly local experts, and don’t have to waste time driving endless miles cross country.
When I addressed the American Trucking Association technology conference late in 2013 I recommended that fleet operators move up their timeline for autonomous trucks. But even a year ago it was not clear that things could move ahead this quickly.
For some technical details of the Mercedes 2025 Truck check this video.
I came across this great article and video about some Washington University, St. Louis students who created the concept for a 3D printed robotic prosthetic arm. The concept assignment came in their biomedical engineering design course. But they took the project one step further, going from their computer design to actually printing the arm. The total cost of the arm was $200, versus a standard prosthetic cost of $6000 or more.
The arm allows the user to pick up objects using a simple shoulder movement of an accelerometer to trigger the arm and hand to open and close. It is quite dramatic in its simplicity. The development illustrates two major trends shaping the future – the application of 3D printing to real-world problems, and the fact that young people more and more are side-stepping long development or apprenticeship times to go direct to impacting the world now.
I came across an insightful blog on self driving cars from Peter Diamandis (entrepreneur, principle creator of X-Prize movement, etc.) He agrees that self driving cars are coming sooner than originally thought, and goes on to list several major implications…
- Reduced deaths, reduced accidents: In the U.S. alone, there were over 33,000 automobile deaths in 2013. For those aged 5 to 34 in the United States, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death, claiming the lives of 18,266 Americans each year.
- Saving LOTS of Money and Time: It’s estimated that AVs could save over 2.7 billion unproductive hours commuting to work. This in turn translates to an annual savings of $447.1 billion per year in the U.S. alone (assuming 90% AV penetration). This number was calculated by taking into account crash cost savings, congestion benefits, reduced travel times, fuel savings, parking savings, changes in total number of vehicles, and other factors.
- Massive Fuel Savings: Today, a 4,000-lb. SUV spends less than 4% of its energy moving a 150-lb. driver around. Imagine if a car could be significantly lighter (because they don’t crash), getting four times the mpg?
- No New Roads, Less Traffic: Autonomous vehicles packed with sensors can drive fast and efficiently at 8 times the packing density of today’s human-driven cars. This means no traffic jams and no need to build new roads. Plus, when they pack closely together, the reduction in wind drag alone could reduce fuel use up to 20 – 30 percent.
- No Ownership – Just “On-Demand” Usage: Today your car is an unused asset 95% of the day. Why own a car when you can have access to whatever car you want, whenever you want it? On-demand car usage will change the future. (Who wins? You do. Who loses? Detroit). It is estimated that at 90% AV penetration, we could actually reduce the number of cars on the road by 42.6%.
- No Garages, No Driveways, No Parking: In his book, Eran Ben-Joseph notes, “In some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than 1/3 of the land area.” But what if you never need to park your car? What if it just drops you off and goes and does something useful? No need for parking garages, parking lots, driveways… Plus, one MIT study found that 40 percent of total gasoline use in cars in urban areas is spent while drivers look for parking.
- No Mandatory Car Insurance: Self driving cars won’t crash and will disrupt the $200 billion auto insurance industry.
Check out this video of another entrant in the self driving car derby – this time Audi setting a speed record with a driverless vehicle – about 147 mph on a race track. Very cool.
To learn more about autonomous vehicles and the future, attend the MIT Enterprise Forum in Seattle on October 29, 2014, 5:30-8:30 PM. Information and registration here.
Recently Elon Musk, leading global innovator, revealed that all Tesla autos coming off the assembly line for the last couple of weeks have the hardware for hands-free auto driving. As he notes, they have been able to accelerate the introduction of autonomous driving. The general consensus had been that true hands-free driving may be a decade away or at least a half-decade. Tesla is jumping the line.
The self-driving car will, I think, have a profound impact on the future of transportation. It is well known that young people in the U.S. have demonstrated a declining interest in driving and in auto ownership. Given a choice between a smart phone or a car, they will chose the phone. Millennials have contributed greatly to the global move to urban areas, where alternate transportation from transit to walking to Uber is more readily available. This generation notes that time spent commuting alone is generally time wasted, and would prefer to transport themselves in a way that enables continued productivity. Driverless cars, capable of at least taking over while a car is on the highway or freeway, will enable people to turn to their phones and their tablets and to continue working or to engage in socializing. Will this lead to more cars in the commute, and a return to a desire to own a car? Perhaps.
If you want to learn more about autonomous vehicles join us for an MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest on October 29, 2014 at the Impact Hub Seattle, 220 Second Avenue South, Seattle, WA from 5:30 to 8:30 PM. You can register here.