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The Driverless City

CAMBRIDGE – At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, the
roulette wheel of innovation landed on something rather old-fashioned and
unexpected: the automobile. In recent decades, cars have been undergoing a gradual
transformation from the kinds of mechanical systems Henry Ford might have imagined
into computers on wheels. And that transformation is bringing with it a new wave of
digital advances – above all, autonomous driving.

The first autonomous (or self-driving) cars date back to the late twentieth century.
But recent increases in sophistication and reductions in cost – reflected, for
example, in cheap LIDAR systems, which can “see” a street in 3D in a way similar to
that of the human eye – are now bringing driverless cars closer to the market.

As we saw last week, several manufacturers are working toward integrating such
systems into their fleets, and expect to start selling premium cars with different
degrees of autonomy as early as 2016. According to a just-released IHS report,
“sometime after 2050” virtually all vehicles on the road might be self-driving.

But what is the drive behind self-driving cars? Are there meaningful benefits beyond
the convenience of keeping your hands off the steering wheel and thus being able to
read a book, take a nap, or guiltlessly text?

At the CES, journalists were busy snapping pictures of driverless vehicles zooming
through the streets of Vegas. But, had they turned their cameras around, they might
have captured something far more interesting: the stage upon which the drama of
self-driving will take place – the street itself.

Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life, because they
will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. “Your”
car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle
in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family – or, for that matter,
to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community, or city.

A recent paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SMART Future Mobility
team shows that the mobility demand of a city like Singapore – potentially host to
the world’s first publicly-accessible feet of self-driving cars – could be met with
30% of its existing vehicles. Furthermore, other researchers in the same group
suggest that this number could be cut by another 40% if passengers traveling similar
routes at the same time were willing to share a vehicle – an estimate supported by
an analysis of New York City Taxis shareability networks. This implies a city in
which everyone can travel on demand with just one-fifth of the number of cars in use
today.

Such reductions in car numbers would dramatically lower the cost of our mobility
infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it.
Fewer cars may also mean shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller
environmental impact.

The deployment of more intelligent transportation systems promises to deliver
similar benefits. Real-time data planning and smart routing are already a reality.
Tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles will prompt another wave of innovation, from
optimization of road capacity to intersection management. Imagine a world without
traffic lights, where vehicular flows “magically” pass through one another and avoid
collision.

But, while the world’s mobility challenges will increasingly be met with silicon
rather than asphalt, encouraging widespread adoption requires guaranteeing that our
streets are as safe – or safer – than they are today. That means that various
redundancies must be introduced to ensure that if one component fails, another
seamlessly takes over.

Traffic accidents, though rarer, would still be a possibility; in fact, they might
be one of the main impediments to implementation of autonomous systems, demanding a
restructuring  of insurance and liability that could sustain armies of lawyers for
years to come.

Finally, there is the fresh issue of digital security. We are all familiar with
viruses crashing our computers. But what if the same virus crashes our cars?

All of these issues are urgent, but none of them is insurmountable. They will be
resolved in the coming years as autonomy redefines mobility and sparks the next
generation of innovations in the field. At that point, the smart money might favor
something even more old-fashioned than cars: the city itself.

Carlo Ratti is a research professor at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City
Laboratory. Matthew Claudel is a research fellow at the Senseable City
Laboratory.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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