Home Management Contemporary Urban Planning
THE FUTURE OF THE AUTOMOBILE
For the past century or so the automobile has improved in an evolutionary process; the introduction of the electric self-starter in 1915, the subsequent introduction of automatic transmissions, power steering, and so on. The basic format, a vehicle powered by a liquid-fueled internal combustion engine and controlled by a person looking through a windshield, turning a steering wheel, and stepping on pedals has been with us from the beginning.
In the past decade or so the pace of change in automotive technology has accelerated greatly. In fact, we may be looking at a quantum jump in one area as will be discussed shortly. For the planner the future of automotive technology should be of great interest because of the powerful link between transportation and land use.
The day when the only propulsion option available was the traditional internal combustion engine is past. All-electric and a variety of hybrid types are increasingly common and the technology is evolving rapidly.
There is also much uncertainty about the future of energy costs. For some time many geologists and others believed that we were approaching "peak oil," meaning that world petroleum production was close to going over the top because the falling output of old wells would be greater than the additional output of new wells. Therefore, the inevitable direction of oil prices was upward. But one hears little if anything about peak oil today because horizontal drilling and fracking are opening up huge sources of petroleum that are not available to conventional drilling (see Chapter 15).
The same technology has made a large supply of natural gas available at a fraction of what gasoline or diesel fuel costs per unit of energy. Here, no technological breakthrough is needed. A limited number of vehicles have been running on liquefied natural gas (LNG) for decades. What would be needed to put millions of LNG-powered vehicles on the road is massive investment, presumably by major oil companies, in the distribution facilities to make LNG refueling stations widely available.
Fuel efficiency, by whatever propulsion mechanism is used, seems to be heading upward. In 2012 the EPA approved a CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standard of 54.5 miles per gallon, approximately double the current standard. Whether this standard will be realized remains to be seen. It implies smaller and lighter-weight vehicles and at times the public has demonstrated a taste for bigger and heavier; witness the speed with which the SUV caught on. So there may be considerable pressure on the EPA to relax the standard. In fact, automobile companies did lobby strenuously against it, but it is clear that expert opinion considers that standard reachable.
In short, there is now tremendous uncertainty about both the technology of propulsion and also the future of fuel costs.
The potential quantum jump is the driverless car. At one time it seemed reasonable to believe that the driverless vehicle might gradually evolve through a combination of vehicle and highway improvements, but now it is most likely that the move to the driverless vehicle will come much more quickly than that.
There are probably many different paths to driverless technology and, of course, much research being carried out now is proprietary, so it is hard for the outsider, and perhaps also for the insider, to have much certainty. However, some information is available. Perhaps the most forthcoming company has not been an automobile manufacturer but Google, which has jumped into the push for the driverless car in a big way and has now accumulated many hundreds of thousands of miles of experience with prototype vehicles. The eyes of the Google system is a lidar system, mounted on top of the car, which provides a very precise real-time 360-degree view of the car's surroundings. Lidar, a laser-based system, has previously been used for remote sensing purposes. The term lidar is the acronym for Light Detection and Ranging, and is patterned on the term radar which is an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging. The Google system also contains a database comparable to the map data stored in a GPS system. Between these two items there is the information to answer the "what is happening around us now" and the "how do we get there from here" questions. It has been suggested by many that the control systems of driverless vehicles will be able to communicate with each other to avoid two systems planning to be in the same place at the same time. There will, no doubt, be problems to be resolved concerning how traffic flows will work when some vehicles are under computer control and others under manual control, since there would inevitably be a long period of time during which the mix of vehicles on the road would gradually shift. The coming of the driverless car is not yet a certainty, but many very technically sophisticated people think it will happen and are putting their money on it.
When major new technologies have been introduced, whether it was the steam engine, heavier than air flight, the computer, the later, fiber optics, etc., it has been the case that many, perhaps most of the long-term implications are not visible at the time. That is probably the case for the driverless automobile if it comes to pass.
But a few things now seem visible through the fog. A control system that never gets bored, doesn't get distracted, sees in all directions at all times, has no taste for alcohol, and processes data orders of magnitude faster than the human brain could promote a vast increase in automobile safety. For people who find that driving can at times induce boredom, elevated blood pressure, or occasional white-knuckle moments, driverless technology will make traveling by car a much happier experience. Driverless technology may make motorists out of many people who now do not drive because they feel they are not capable of doing it safely, perhaps seniors who think their eyesight, reflexes, or ability to process information quickly are not up to the task. Control systems that process data in microseconds will probably make it possible to operate safely at higher speeds and closer vehicle spacing than is now the case, thus increasing highway capacity without having to add lanes. It is hard to believe that driverless technology, particularly if accompanied by greater fuel economy, would not have serious implications for the long-term development of our pattern of land use and settlement.
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