Driverless Cars: A Viable Solution to Sustainable Mobility?

by |June 13, 2014

By Lisa Ng

In 2010, Google introduced the revolutionary concept of a driverless car: a car able to transport humans and goods from one location to another without a person controlling the automobile. These cars are summoned and directed to a location via smartphone application. However, the first driverless cars were merely regular cars equipped with a robotic LIDAR (light radar) system, which uses a laser to generate a map of its surroundings. Afterwards, the car takes the created map and compares it with maps of the world, allowing it to navigate efficiently to its final destination.

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Google’s first driverless car: A Lexus RX 450h equipped with a LIDAR system. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Four years later, in May 2014, Google introduced a new type of driverless car that runs on electricity: one without a steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal. Thus, the car relies almost entirely on Google sensors and software to control it. The only way to control the immediate movement of the car is by using the “start” button and the red “e-stop” button. In addition to not having a steering wheel or pedals to control the acceleration of the vehicle, Google’s driverless car differs from a traditional automobile in that it only travels at a maximum of 25 miles per hour and the front of the car is made of a foamlike material, in case it strikes a pedestrian. Like Google’s first driverless car, it is equipped with a LIDAR system. Furthermore, the new driverless car has a sensor system that allows it see 600 feet in all directions.

How might this strange little car be the solution to sustainable transportation?

Lawrence D. Burns, director of the Program on Sustainable Mobility at the Earth Institute, found in a recent study that driverless cars have an integral role on improving personal mobility. This leads to increased transportation efficiency, decreased maintenance costs and most importantly, a smaller carbon footprint. The driverless car, combined with the “Mobility Internet,” advanced propulsion and shared vehicle systems, and vehicles designed for specific tasks all form the transformational opportunity for a “better mobility experience at a radically lower cost.” The “Mobility Internet” “does for the movement of people and goods what the internet has done for the movement of information by coordinating large amounts of real time spatial and temporal connectivity and infrastructure data.”

For a sustainable form of transportation, these driverless cars can be utilized as a fleet of automated taxis. According to Burns, Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis make 470,000 trips a day, averaging 11 miles per hour with an average of 1.4 passengers per trip and an average wait time of five minutes. With the implementation of a well-organized taxi system using smartphone applications and driverless cars, the wait time could be cut down to a minute. Not only do the passengers benefit from the reduction of waiting time, but the environment does as well.

When a passenger requests a pickup, he sends his location to the dispatcher via Mobility Internet with a smart phone application. The car closest to his current location will to pick him up by determining his exact location on the Mobility Internet. The car will then transport him to his destination before doing the same for others. Because the driverless car has access to the Mobility Internet, there is no need for it to drive through the streets looking for passengers. Once it detects a passenger nearby, an idle vehicle closest to the passenger will be able to pick him up. If no idle vehicles are available, the vehicle with the closest drop-off destination will pick up the new passenger after the previous one leaves the taxi. In addition, because the car serves as a taxi, there is no need for the passenger to search for parking space. As a result, this system drastically reduces carbon emissions from automobiles, and in the case of Google’s driverless car, saves electricity.

Google’s new driverless car is a prototype. The car itself still needs to undergo testing, where it will be exposed to extreme weather conditions such as high winds and snow. In addition, various laws prevent these specific driverless cars from being on the streets today. For example, current California law requires driverless cars to have manual controls to override the car’s autonomous driving system in the case of an emergency. As a result, this specific electric car is unlawful. It will be a while before these cars will be moving among us; 100 of these prototypes are being produced in Michigan for further testing. As of now, we can find them zooming along the streets in Mountain View, Calif., obediently driving various Google employees to and from Google headquarters.

Lisa Ng is an intern at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. She is studying geography and documentary production at the Macaulay Honors College.


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