The convergence of motion sensors, GPS, electric vehicles, big data, radar, laser scanning, computer vision, and artificial intelligence is hastening the arrival of autonomous vehicles (AVs)—cars that drive themselves. Experts predict they will make up 75 percent of road vehicles by 2040. Whether AVs will have a benign, neutral, or negative impact on society and the planet is unclear.
How cars are owned and utilized today could not be less efficient: They are driven 4 percent of the time. If mobility comes to be viewed as an on-demand service—rather than private ownership of expensive, two-ton assemblages of steel, glass, plastic, and rubber—the material savings would be immense. The U.S. auto fleet could decline by 50 to 60 percent. But it would require a massive cultural shift.
There are other potential advantages. For starters, AV concept models are smaller and more aerodynamic. In dedicated lanes, they can form platoons and draft, as cyclists do in a peloton. Autonomy is likely to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles because most trips are local and in battery range. Still, big questions remain: Will AVs be used for ridesharing or single occupancy? Will their convenience drive miles traveled up, rather than down?
Technical summaries for each solution will be available May 1, 2017.