The self-driving car.
It's here - almost. You’ve heard that they’re in operation without backup drivers here and there, maybe saw an excited reporter talking about an accident in Tempe AZ some time ago. Aurora.tech is taking a slower, more patient road to self-driving, first through the big Class A semi's, then to ordinary cars. There’s plenty of work to be done, and accidents will happen as they learn to drive as well as we do, then better. But, they will. In the meantime, join me looking into the future. Assume, just for now, that they’ve already learned how to drive very well.
The "freeways" are often parking lots; pouring more concrete and building 15-billion-dollar parallel rail lines don't help. More concrete and rails aren’t solutions, they’re just temporary, dirty band-aids that don’t heal the traffic wounds.
We’re in Pause Mode now as we work through the corona virus problems, but we will get out there again. Most of us would rather do that around town via individual, here-to-goal vehicles. A bus is fun once in a (long) while, but waiting at a bus stop with groceries and kids in hand is not. We might not mind having First-Class alternatives to fighting the freeways. The good news: we can make those trips far better and zero-carbon.
What’s the answer?
Is there a way to quickly get where we need to go, solve the parking dilemma we face when we get there, move around the city easily and get back home again quickly with our packages, groceries and kids when done? And maybe do that in a way that’s friendly to the planet?
Let’s illustrate with a couple of stories to visualize how things can be. Both are about the same person at the same moment in her life (a blizzardly winter morning), but under very different circumstances. Let’s call it “A Tale of Two Commutes”.
Somewhere in northern Colorado -- Emma's Unpleasant Commute:
Emma awoke in the dark with a slight headache – Anna and Jack had stayed later than she had expected, she had wined and dined a bit more than usual during the visit. Her plan to put the finishing touches on this morning’s presentation had succumbed to falling into bed at 11:30. It had begun to snow as they left, and a quick look at her phone’s forecast alerted her to set the alarm half an hour earlier than usual. Emma had become a “morning person” of necessity after the move from Denver north to the smaller town of Fort Collins. She and Jim had agreed that the kids would be better off here and that she ought to be able to find a job nearby. But – her job, software and hands-on hardware development for elder care robots at a tech firm in Denver, hadn’t moved, and nothing like it had showed up in Fort Collins. She commuted regularly now, dealing carefully with the restrictions imposed by the covid virus, and the traffic on Interstate 25 since their move 6 years ago was often ferocious. It seemed that everyone wanted to get to Denver at 8 AM and they all kept moving their I-25 entry times back as the traffic increased. Combined with this January snowstorm and the need to get to the office for an 8:15 tech presentation to the Board, she had set her pillow-shaker alarm for 4:45 AM. Aghh!
The commute to her Denver desk had been a fairly reliable 75 minutes when they moved. It was now an unreliable 100 minutes, with freeway accidents regularly extending that time and the snowstorm this morning making it even less predictable. Planning for a two-hour drive after shoveling enough snow to get out of the driveway, was now unreasonably reasonable. Her headache got worse as she thought about it.
She rolled out of bed and used the spare bathroom to quietly get ready, grabbed the coffee she had padded downstairs earlier to start brewing, found an energy bar to carry along as “breakfast”, rolled up the garage door and began shoveling the wet, heavy snow. Backing the car out at 6AM and heading east toward the icy mess on the Interstate, she couldn’t help but imagine what might have been, had the intersection of self-driving electric cars, artificial intelligence, precision GPS and 5G wireless networks been recognized earlier as a regional development opportunity. Her own company would have provided a great piece for that puzzle.
As she found a gap in the I-25 traffic and began the slow, slippery, nerve-wracking grind to Denver, worried that her presentation wasn’t ready and that she might be late to her own show, she fantasized how the morning might be unrolling had enough folks embraced that idea some years prior….
Emma's Commute #2: The Happy Alternative:
Emma awoke in the dark with a bit of a headache (we can't change that..). She hadn’t finished her presentation for this morning, but wasn’t too concerned since the commute to Denver would give her the hour she needed to apply some finishing touches. It was 5:30AM – plenty of time for oatmeal and a banana before being picked up for the auto-commute to the Transfer Center near I-25. The snow had arrived in force, but small electric self-driving plows had worked quietly all night to keep a lane clear outside the house, and had even cleared a path down her driveway as a courtesy, knowing her schedule. She clicked “Ready” on her phone app, put on her coat, collected her coffee and stepped out the door knowing that the little self-driving AWD ECar would pull up about now. Stepping into its warm interior, she checked her phone for messages (hopefully there had been none between 11:30PM and 6AM!), then spent the 8 minutes to the I-25 transfer center on a quick look through the presentation’s pages.
At the center, the ECar drove itself through the quick-lift doors and entered the warm building’s interior. To her left, several hydrogen-powered HVans waited for passengers, and directly ahead of her some 20 ECars were stopped, passengers disembarking and walking to the lead vans. As she watched, one, filled with 10 passengers in two rows of comfy seats, moved to an exit door which popped open for a few seconds. The center’s dedicated entrance road welcomed the AWD vehicle to I-25. The HVans owned the left lane and that one accelerated quickly on its high-traction winter tires toward Denver, very likely to get there in an hour. Ahead in the distance, a self-driving plow cleared the lane, ready to step aside as the HVan passed.
Emma walked to the next van and chose a seat. A passenger was already comfortable in the only other seat in her row, across the aisle, having entered via an automatic tilt-up door on the other side. Emma buckled her belt, thought again that this seat felt like First Class air travel, plugged in her laptop and auto-connected to the Van’s 5G wi-fi. She recalled her quick review during the E-Car drive and began the presentation touch-up. A small robot rolled down the narrow center aisle as the van moved out of the transportation center onto the Interstate. The robot, turning its screen-face toward her and, flashing a smile of recognition, asked if she’d like her usual black coffee and perhaps a cherry-filled pastry this morning? She acquiesced (the pastry would certainly help with the remnants of her headache, she reasoned), and hardly noticed as the van accelerated toward Denver. The cushioned seat began a massage program and her Bluetooth earpods played a Mozart string quartet as she concentrated on the work. Across the aisle she noticed her row-mate working on an architectural design project, and through the side window she saw an ordinary car, with a real driver clenched to the steering wheel as he strained to see into the snowstorm. The HVan rolled ahead using its intelligent AWD with powerful electric motors at each wheel, 3D cameras, radar, sonar and the new high-res GPS satellite system. All of the HVans communicated with other self-drivers about road conditions and traffic, planning well ahead for any problems discovered. Emma's settled into its job – in the last month, only one I-25 H-van had been in an accident, when an ordinary car had veered so quickly into its lane that it couldn’t avoid being sideswiped. That van, built to protect its occupants carefully, had moved to the side of the road and a backup stationed nearby had picked up its occupants, who continued their journey with only a slight delay.
The driver of the other vehicle was stranded for an hour before a tow truck could get to him in that storm.
Emma finished the presentation, relaxed and thought about tonight’s dinner back home with the family. The hour to Denver had passed quickly. As her van neared the Denver Center, the E-Network, aware of her ETA, selected a little ECar (similar to the one she had used in Fort Collins) for her office transportation leg and let her know to expect it one minute after she stepped out. She was told that the car would have the “purple mountain majesty” color scheme, and, of course, her ID displayed on the external screen to help her find it in the colorful line of waiting cars. She walked across the Center’s divider, stepped into the self-driving car and it exited the warm building for her office. It stopped near her entrance in a permanently open ECar-only dropoff space, let her out and moved back into the light 7:30 Denver traffic. Emma's phone notified the system that her morning commute was done and she briefly recalled that the charge would be much less than she would have spent on a dedicated car, insurance, maintenance, gasoline and Denver parking, plus the hassle of driving herself. This is a great system, she thought, and picked up another coffee prior to settling into her office for a few minutes prior to beginning her presentation down the hall. After that many coffees and a decent night’s sleep, she was WIDE awake for the presentation and looking forward to beginning the robot modifications soon after.
This is our choice: we can, today, help Emma with her commute tomorrow.
Making the Choice
The surprising thing, as you compare the two commutes and make your selection, is that they’re about equally likely to be true some years from now. If we continue spending billions to pour concrete and build in-city and intercity rail lines as usual, Emma will take Commute 1 again and again, maybe dying early of frustration. If we instead recognize what the gadgets currently being developed can accomplish, we can use that money and the existing concrete on I-25 (or on whatever "freeway" you happen to be suffering) to welcome the HVans that will each replace 10 one-occupant cars per trip. Putting only 500 HVans on I-25 between Fort Collins and Denver can replace 50,000 cars (!) during the 10-hour rush period, will clear the freeway and give Emma her coffee (and that delicious pastry) and a relaxing chance to read a book, listen to music or a news program or do some work. An outing to Denver will become a relaxing trip rather than a big-city find-a-parking-spot ordeal. Chaperoned student groups will visit a Denver museum having become familiar with its secrets in the HVan on the way there. Come to think of it, there’s no obvious reason why, in Emma's connected mobile HVan office, her 2-hour daily round trip should not count toward her 8-hour work day. Six hours in her office/lab, two hours doing paperwork, research and tele-meetings in First Class and, home again! Given our covid lessons-learned about remote work efficiencies, this seems more likely than ever.
We already know that driving in ferocious traffic is hard on the heart – let’s just fix this and protect Emma from an untimely fate.
Now - Imagine Commutes #1 or #2 on your own freeway. Have you made your selection?
I’ll bet you have. 😉
Even more exciting is the fact that the solution to this one problem is part of the solution to global warming. I’ve dedicated this website to that solution, and to the fact that by freeing our own freeways we can help the rest of the world solve the problems of energy, food production, clean water, housing, security and health. We can create a new industry right here, right now, and provide its benefits to others.
So – How do we do this – how will it all work – is it even possible?
Let’s look at the resources we need to accomplish Emma's Commute #2. Surprisingly, everything is either available right now or will be by the time we choose to use it.
What are the key pieces we need to make Commute #2 Emily's reality?
*Self-driving ECars and HVans with the ability to see, communicate, learn and react better than we do.
*A regional E-Network, with its transfer centers, 5G highspeed communications and ETA intelligence.
*A system of fueling stations providing E-car-charging electricity or hydrogen using power provided by wind, solar, hydro or nuclear.
The GPS system that the U.S. built has become essential to the world – but it’s not as accurate as it now can be. New satellites with updated technology will provide the location accuracy needed for self-driving cars (and lawnmowers!). We're sending the new satellites into orbit right now, and the high-accuracy system needed for precise navigation will be in place in time for Emma to use.
The other three pieces to make Commute #2 a reality should also be ready soon.