Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Driverless Vehicles Are Inevitable, and Why We Care About This
by David P. Carlisle

For quite a while, driverless vehicles have been in the news almost daily. Now we hear that Google has perfected its self-driving car, and that driverless vehicles will be commonplace inside the next five years. This is very important to everybody in our industry, as well as to consumers. Safety and cost are the two big benefits to vehicle owners and drivers. Driverless vehicles will crash less, which means fewer injuries and fatalities, and, inevitably, lower insurance premiums.

For the industry, fewer totaled vehicles will take a bite out of vehicle replacement sales. Lower collision rates will take a bite out of collision parts and labor sales. The driverless car will profoundly change the industry. So, yes, we care about it.

In fact, this innovative “product” is almost fully baked and ready to go. As a successful prototype, we already “have” it. But, do we “want” it??? Is our nation’s legal and regulatory apparatus ready and willing to accommodate this new technology ?

I think those changes will be made. Here are six good reasons why the driverless vehicle is inevitable.
  1. It’s not that big of a deal for our highways to accommodate driverless vehicles. In the U.S. we have approximately 4 million miles of roads. About 3% of those lane miles are devoted to interstates/freeways/expressways, but that 3% also carries about 30% of all vehicle miles traveled. We predict driverless vehicles will probably be using these high-capacity roadways.
  2. We are running out of highway capacity. Our current population of 325 million has grown 14% since 2000, and will grow another 4% by 2020. But, our highways certainly haven’t grown 14% since 2000. In other words an increasing population is being serviced by a highly constricted highway system now operating over capacity. That’s a big problem.
  3. Furthermore, a highway’s carrying capacity is not a smooth linear progression. We’ve all experienced this. You are traveling steadily down a busy interstate, and suddenly see a police car on the side of the road flashing like a Christmas tree. Everybody slows down, rubber-necks, and what was OK traffic becomes a parking lot. This chain reaction – slow human response time coupled with the human capacity for distraction – screws things up. Let the machine drive and the humans gawk, as is their nature. The driverless car would have a very significant, positive, impact on highway capacity.
  4. Boomers are aging. Right now Baby Boomers, the 50 and 60-somethings, represent a tad more than 27% of the U.S. population. By 2020 Boomers will still account for around 20% of the population, but they’ll be slower and their reaction times more retarded. The adverse impact on highway capacity and safety won’t be trivial. Instead of a bunch of young NASCAR drivers, we will have 14% more older drivers with typical declines in vision, judgment, and response time . Yuk. Hmm… if a Toyota can parallel park itself better than a 20-something can, who knows how much a machine can improve on the driving of a 70-year-old Boomer?
  5. Driverless is more green. The energy crisis has melded into an environmental global warming crisis, and it is environmentally irresponsible not to try to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Driverless vehicles, especially in trucking, can take a huge chunk out of fuel consumption through platooning and by taking advantage of vehicular drafting. This works for cars, too. Here, again, machine beats man.
  6. Truck “Platooning” saves lots of money. Imagine a convoy of seven trucks. Typical cost of operation is a little more than $1 a mile for a long-haul vehicle – so this convoy costs about $7 a mile to operate. Around 20% of that cost is for fuel, but fuel consumption can benefit from drafting – maybe we can save 20% of the fuel cost with this. ($1.40 per mile in fuel cost for the seven trucks goes down by $0.28 – a 4% drop in total operating cost.) Labor is about 30% of the operating cost. Typically, labor would account for a bit more than $2.10 of the $7 a mile. But, if we “platoon”, we only need one driver in the lead. So, we save $1.80 of the $2.10 truck driver expense, or another 26% of the total cost. This is serious, compelling, money.
Bottom line: It is a very safe bet that we will see driverless vehicles somewhere on the road inside the next five years.

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