7. Self-Driving to the Future

The roads are too crowded.

A drive to Denver from Fort Collins or Colorado Springs at the wrong time of day is an exercise in Interstate Parking - wasting time and fuel, creating pollution and frustration. Adding insult to injury is our suspicion that, regardless of when a new lane might be squeezed in here or there, it won’t be enough. It might, at best, drop us back to today’s level of gridlock.

It doesn’t have to be this way: Just crossing the horizon are systems and technologies that can forever fix the problem. We are at a crossroads in transportation. We need to banish that old solution: “Just pour more concrete”. By embracing the future (long before yet another Interstate lane can be funded and built), we can permanently solve this problem. We can also create a major new industry and make it available to the rest of the world.

Let’s go straight to the concept - We need a way to get around town without the traffic and parking hassles, and a way to move an ever-increasing number of people to and from cities without an ever-increasing number of delays. Let’s also allow our travel time to be used for purposes other than driving.

Rail lines aren’t the answer – they’re nutty expensive to build, a train departs only now and then, and the fixed rails will eventually go to the wrong place (as the city moves on). A bus system is a step forward, but it creates a lot of wait time at the bus stops, doesn’t quite go where you’d like, and is a clumsy way to transport groceries.

The answer: An ever-alert, smart system of specialized vans, supported by air-conditioned transport hubs to move between cities, plus an Uber/Lyft-like set of thousands of small electric self-driving vehicles to deliver us around town or to those hubs at a moment’s notice. That’s a network of computer-aware, automated cars in each city, feeding automated, limo-like Supervans a few minutes apart up and down the Interstate. An intercity network using hundreds of slim, electric-AWD, 10-passenger vans with comfortable individual seating, WiFi and good coffee, with an aisle running back between the two sets of 5 individual, cushiony seats. Plus thousands of small electric 2- or 4-passenger cars waiting for us all over town.

Cost? Less than adding Interstate lanes, with none of the endless aggravation of road construction. And much less costly than supporting that second car that's now sitting in your garage. Each van will take ~10 cars off the freeway each trip. Hundreds of vans will take thousands off the road each hour; tens of thousands per day: Gridlock solved. Add vans, rinse and repeat over time.

These Supervans have to be developed and trained to drive themselves. They should be electric, probably powered by hydrogen fuel. Prototypes are already running here and in Europe. This is an opportunity: we can take the lead in developing, testing and building the vehicles, creating a system to be adopted world-wide.

So, how will we get from home or work to the Supervan hubs? Uber/Lyft cars are already available around the country; right now, one can be at your door in a few minutes. That concept can quickly lead (with some incentives) to moving many thousands each morning from our front doors to the grocery store or the Supervan hubs. As Uber and others develop self-driving vehicles (I saw the first of these in Pittsburgh in 2016, carrying passengers past our coffee shop), and Honda, Hyundai and others develop hydrogen-fueled vehicles, a flexible, clean system of multitudes of small cars in towns, cities and points between will be available to respond to cell-phone taps, picking us up at our doors, presenting us to a just-departing Supervan at a transportation hub. “Next van leaving in 3 minutes” (and again 3 minutes after that). We can take the lead in assisting the automobile/automation companies, providing friendly test environments leading to a world-class system.

You don’t like standing outside at the Hub while waiting for the next Supervan? Neither do I. Because electric cars and vans produce no noxious exhaust, the transportation center can be enclosed with a dozen vans lined up and loading inside, the smaller cars delivering riders by the hundreds, with quick-lift garage doors for entrance and exit. We’ll transfer warm & dry for immediate departure. The vans will eventually become autonomous, first with a driver (later an attendant) to handle problems.

The Superhub’s fine, but you need to get to a specific spot in town? Me too. The system will know each Supervan’s location and its progress toward a hub via GPS and 5G networking, and will automatically reserve a small car, ready for only you at your arrival. Especially in a larger city, using a self-driving car to cover the last mile or two can be wonderfully efficient: Drop spots will be set aside throughout the city, reserved for brief stops so that you can exit at your destination - no searches for parking, ever again. Ditto that afternoon, with an ECar called at a phone-tap, ready when you are to return to the Hub or go elsewhere in the city.

The round-trip fare for the entire trip (set to be much less than the total cost of driving yourself) will be free if you’re not satisfied. If you are, the charges will go automatically to your account – no delay for payments or tips. That’s how Uber & Lyft work already.

Cars using hydrogen fuel cells have been running for years in California – they need full-scale testing now around the country and can lead directly to HVan development.

The result of creating this system will be a continuous decrease in the number of vehicles on the main roads – each HVan removes about ten cars per trip, and we’ll make sure that using the system is so attractive that word of mouth will convince most to give it a try, soon.

A hundred vans running ten hours a day on a one-hour trip will take ~10,000 cars off the Interstate. Five hundred will replace 50,000 cars, will free up most parking spots/lots in the city, and will allow passengers quick, comfortable access to their destinations as they work, read or nap. It’s all feasible right now, and the money to develop it will come from not building more Interstate or rail lanes. We can avoid the endless highway construction projects. We have plenty of lanes on the ground right now.