3 ways of looking at autonomous vehicles


Autonomous vehicles are cars and trucks that literally drive themselves by navigating street mazes and hitting high speeds on busy interstates without a human being at the wheel to make decisions and exert control. Companies like Uber and Waymo, which will run an estimated 1 million autonomous trips daily in the United States by next year, share stories of futuristic transportation systems that free us from the drudgery of driving. But as automakers compete to lead the self-driving market, how well do autonomous vehicles really perform in terms of energy efficiency, safety, and mobility? Here are three perspectives on autonomous driving’s fast-changing realities.

  1. Autonomous vehicles will likely deliver on the promise of eco-friendly transportation — but it won’t be easy.

The University of Michigan recently examined whether autonomous vehicles will prove to be more energy-efficient than conventional, human-operated cars and trucks. What emerged from the study is a complicated picture filled with trade-offs.

On the one hand, self-driving cars are heavily laden with technology infrastructure including GPS trackers, laser-based lidar devices, sonar and radar capabilities, multiple cameras, computers, and storage components, all of which add weight that significantly erodes fuel efficiency. Another factor that makes autonomous vehicles perform a bit like 1970s “gas guzzlers” is the power needed to run all of that technology. For example, in the Michigan study, the vehicle’s central nervous system — the computer — accounted for close to half of the car’s additional weight and most of its extra power usage. High-def mapping systems were especially energy-hungry. In addition, mounted cameras caused inefficient air flows that generated drag, underscoring the need for miniaturized components. For these reasons, the study found, self-driving cars were at risk of contributing from 3 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions, over the projected life of a vehicle, compared with conventional cars driven by people.

However, researchers believe these risks can be overcome and that, ultimately, self-driving cars could enable up to a 9-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Why? According to the study, autonomous vehicles will likely catalyze a ride-sharing movement that removes cars from the road and causes many parking lots to vanish. This lifestyle shift will work to counter the way autonomous vehicles may make car transport easier, encouraging unnecessary travel.

Even more decisive than the car-pooling trend is that self-driving cars can navigate much more smoothly and precisely than human-piloted cars, reducing stops and starts that consume fuel and enabling cars to spend more time at higher speeds where fuel economy is better. These cars could also be directed to take the most fuel-efficient routes. Autonomous vehicles with electric engines promise further greenhouse gas reductions of up to 40 percent compared with self-driving cars that use internal combustion engines. So what’s the best answer for energy efficiency? It might be cars that don’t just operate themselves, but are battery-powered too.

  1. Safety issues continue to come into focus.

Researchers have long felt that self-driving cars will prove to be safer than conventional cars for drivers, passengers, and municipalities. One reason is that the robotic pilots are immune to visual and other distractions that sometimes cause human drivers to crash. “Texting while driving” no longer poses a safety risk when drivers are programmed for absolute focus, and illegal speeding and other reckless behaviors can similarly be ruled out. Robots can also react quickly to danger and cope with rain and darkness as they “see” the road using intelligent tools. Every time a company like Lyft tests its self-driving prototype in real-life highway conditions, the autonomous system, in theory, gets that much smarter and safer.

As media reports indicate, however, self-driving cars do crash. In 2018, a self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking her bike across a street in Tempe, Arizona. Dozens of other much less serious accidents have occurred, sometimes because human-driven vehicles have struck robot-driven prototypes. But when human error causes an estimated 94 percent of car accidents, is it reasonable to hope that autonomous driving will someday make roadways safer?

  1. Mobility for everyone, and the independent lives that go with it, may be closer than ever before.

After the age of 65, drivers become somewhat less likely to choose to operate vehicles on their own. People with autism spectrum disorder, Downs syndrome, or impaired hearing or vision may also find it difficult or impossible to drive. And that’s where autonomous driving’s promise of increased mobility for just about everyone comes in:

  • With autonomous vehicles, a society’s most elderly members may be able to reduce the negative health effects of social isolation by more frequently traveling out into the community where civic bonds are maintained.
  • Self-driving cars may one day enable people with Downs syndrome or autism to experience much greater independence in their daily lives while opening up new employment opportunities.
  • A person who is blind may use autonomous travel to avoid conventional mass-transit environments where they face injury risk during commutes.

To help autonomous vehicles deliver these benefits, automobile industry designers, manufacturers, and regulators are working together to address challenges. For example, how successfully will the self-driving car of the future communicate with passengers, whether it’s decoding a verbal command or alerting a blind passenger that the destination has been reached? One day, people with visual impairments may be able to direct their journeys using Braille keys while, for passengers with hearing loss, computerized maps will continually display the car’s progress and location. Can engineers discover how best to incorporate wheelchair lifts that allow disabled passengers to enter and exit the vehicle easily? Self-driving cars that don’t provide these and other accessibility features would exclude large classes of potential passengers. And will the smartphone apps that interact with the car’s technology be user-friendly for all passengers?

What’s clear is that bringing the benefits of self-driving to everyone will require engineering innovation that takes specific energy efficiency, safety, and mobility needs into account.

Read the DXC white paper, “Racing to Build Autonomous Cars,” to learn more.

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