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Science communication is important in today's technologically advanced society. A good part of the adult community is not science saavy and lacks the background to make sense of rapidly changing technology. My blog attempts to help by publishing articles of general interest in an easy to read and understand format without using mathematics. I also give free lectures in community events - you can arrange these by writing to me.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Disruptive Innovation - Part 2 - Electric Vehicles shall Substitute the Current 'Not Fit For Purpose' Road Transport System

Blog Content - Ravi Singhal Profile      Category:  Future Technology
(Click on a slide to see its full size image - Esc to return to text)

"The way we drive cars has not changed much over the past century. Finally, new technologies are about to completely redefine how we travel. Autonomous vehicles will be a disruptive game changer."
In Part 1, I had looked at disruptive innovation (DI) in transport during the 19th and 20th centuries.  I wish to extend the discussion to point out the current shocking state of transportation and how the situation is ripe for a new entrant to substitute automobiles running on fossil fuel.  Certain conditions are necessary for quick adoption of DI - I feel that such conditions are now in place.  We have a transport system - I am referring here to road transport infrastructure - that is overcrowded, inefficient, highly polluting, unsafe and inconvenient to use.  At the same time, the necessary technology for electric vehicles (EV) - battery technology, miniaturized sensor/digital devices and network software - has reached a maturity level that EVs look very attractive and have started to become competitive in the traditional car market.  EV and its younger sibling, the driver-less car or autonomous vehicle (AV), promise to remove most of the negative features of the current transport system. 

The idea of a driver-less car (AV) is that it will operate under software control with zero human input. Getting rid of a human driver has potential advantages: Computers don't get drunk, don't get distracted by kids, don't rush when they are late, with computers driver fatigue is completely eliminated.  AVs will obey traffic rules which are designed for safe, efficient driving. In fact, with AVs, one would not need to own a car but sharing it will make far more sense and will be highly economical - you are not paying a driver! Shared AVs - let us call them aTaxis - will 
  • reduce the number of cars on the road by 50% 
  • seriously cut down on pollutant emissions - help climate change too 
  • allow freedom of movement to disabled and old people and also the very young
  • free passengers to use the travel time for personal purposes
  • more comfortable rides - smoother acceleration and braking
  • reduce the number of accidents by 90%
  • by platooning - reduced distance between cars - increase fuel efficiency and also significantly increase highway capacity
  • shared EVs will greatly reduce the need of parking spaces
      • will allow land in cities to be used beneficially - for housing, parks etc.
      • train station parking will not be necessary, allowing all day greater use of commuter trains

Present Car Infrastructure is not fit for purpose:  

It is highly Inefficient:  Currently, a car travels about 30 miles a day with an average speed of 30 miles per hour - in use for 1 hour per day.  It stands idle for >95% of the time and carries only 1.6 occupant on average.
Much of the time on the road, the car is either stationary or crawling - this is inefficient use of fuel and transport infrastructure.  I tell about my personal experience:

My daughter lives in a town 20 miles outside London.  She allows half an hour to drive the 1.3 miles to the train station in the morning.  When visiting her, I offered to do the driving and during one week, she missed the train two times (it wasn't because I was driving!) - it took 35 to 40 minutes to cover 1.3 miles.  The petrol consumption over the whole week was 22.3 mpg instead of the expected 42 mpg.

The road infrastructure is in place, but most of the time only a few cars are using it - less than 5% of the time roads are used to their full design capacity.  This is inefficient.

It is highly Polluting:  Less than 1% of the fuel energy is used in moving the car from A to B - the rest is wasted.  Both petrol and diesel vehicles emit pollutants.  Carbon-di-oxide has been responsible for climate change, oxides of nitrogen are damaging to health. Particulates from diesel cars have large surface area, they efficiently adsorb chemicals - many of them harmful - and find their way into the lungs and aggravate health issues like cancers and premature deaths.  

It is Overcrowded:  Our city roads are congested because of car traffic.  We have all experienced the frustration of driving from A to B during peak rush hours.  Many useful productive hours are wasted sitting in traffic jams.  Global urban population is projected to increase from 3.8 billion in 2010 to 6.5 billion by 2050.  1.5 million people are added to the urban population each week! Cities are going to get geographically bigger and overcrowded.  Transport infrastructure is already inefficient and will get even more so in the future.

It is Unsafe:  IN USA, 5.5 million transport related accidents are recorded of which 93.6% are due to human error.  They result in 33000 deaths (globally 1.2 million die per year), 2 million hospital visits and $300 billion in lost productivity. Why is our society accepting the epidemic of car crashes!!

It is Wasteful:  Average family in OECD countries spend about 17% of annual income on automobiles.  A car owner spends £0.50 in UK ($0.90 in USA) to drive her car one mile. The average car occupancy is 1.6 

What are the Reasons for Poor Transport Conditions:  Only humans are to be blamed for the poor transport infrastructure and inefficiency that it represents.  In my view, car manufacturers and oil conglomerates have conspired to block the development and adoption of alternate technology and have used their lobbying power to the fullest extent to frustrate attempts to shift to alternate technologies and foster better, more pragmatic use of auto transport.  The mantra of 'personal transport' has been successfully sold to all and our society is wedded to the idea of car ownership - even though 96% of the time it is not moving - a good example of how to waste resources.  A consequence of personal car ownership culture is that efficient and good public transport systems did not develop properly to address the needs of our society.  Rather, we have a transport system that is inefficient and not fit for purpose.  It is failing to meet the current needs of the society and the situation is likely to get much worse. It is a two trillion dollar industry and it is a shame that people who control these companies are unable to see the fast approaching day of reckoning. Unfortunately, highly inefficient systems are most vulnerable to disruptive innovation and the current road transport is an ideal target for DI. 

Cars as Personal Transport:  'Breaking the link between ownership and access is a vital stepping stone to adopting AVs'.  Ownership of cars by individuals is valued highly in our society.  Globally, there were 1.2 billion cars in 2014, with car ownership expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050 - in the business as usual scenario.  Also, the road length appears to have reached saturation levels in OECD countries. The result is that congestion will increase in time - it is already a serious problem.  Shared cars will help to significantly moderate the problem of congestion. Studies suggest that if everybody used shared vehicles then the number of vehicles required will drop by at least 50%.  Already in cities, many people do not own cars and use buses or other public transport.  This trend will continue.  Shared taxis reduce the expense of going from A to B considerably but increase journey time and require a greater acceptance of a move from personal transport.

Electric cars as the new disruptor:  Electric cars have been around for a long time - they were not suitable for personal road transport because technology lacked a way of storing energy to provide an acceptable driving range.  This has now changed and a 200+ miles range between charging the car battery is now possible.  Battery technology is expected to improve further along with a network of battery charging points; it is widely accepted that electric vehicles have passed the tipping point needed for their adoption as a reliable means of transport.  EVs are still expensive with small cars priced around US$40,000.  This should come down as volumes and competition increase.  Cheverlot Bolt, is probably the most versatile of EVs available at present and is described in the following two slides:
(However, see also the newly announced car Faraday Future with bigger range and specifications)

The Bolt, and many of petrol-driven cars, now incorporate many safety features which are being developed for autonomous (driver-less vehicles) and this trend will continue.The  take-up of EVs will increase rapidly.

Distracting Devices in Cars (featuritis):  
'you can't be looking at the road and the screen at the same time'.  
'In today's super-connected world, it seems driving is a distraction'
The operation of the car today is already controlled by a powerful computer - GPS, ignition control, adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights, front crash prevention, parallel parking, lane departure warning and prevention, brake assist are some of the features available widely in cars. Many devices are fitted on dashboards, worn on wrists or body, carried on seats and pockets, HUDs - head-up displays are transparent screens that present data without requiring users to look away from their usual viewpoint.  These distract the driver and compromise safety. The trend of fitting features that are developed for AVs - like adaptive cruise control, lane-changing etc., gives a feeling of security that encourages the driver to be less attentive.  Many experts feel that partially automated vehicles are even more dangerous because the potential of distracting the driver; a transition from human driven cars to driver-less cars should be made not slowly in steps but as a quantum change.  Let us look at the AVs and discuss where we are:

Driver-less or Autonomous Vehicles will be a game changer and will be a true disruptive innovation with ability to substitute fossil fuel transport, hopefully, by around 2050.  AVs could reduce the number of cars by 50%, road traffic accidents by 90% and substantially cut commute time and wasted energy in transport. There is a body of opinion which claims that AVs will never happen because software could not possibly replace humans in making decisions on the roads and there are safety concerns relating to hacking of the car's computers.  I think such opinion make many valid points but the vantage point is not right. Technology is at its most efficient when faced with a specific problem - none of the problems in transport are insurmountable especially given the vast markets worth two trillion dollars and the current need to replace road infrastructure.  All factors required to spur technological breakthroughs are present including competition among several manufacturers developing AVs.  I do feel that AVs will totally replace human controlled cars at some stage - may be not by 2030 or 2040 as some claim, but very possibly in 50 years time.  

The Current Situation:  AVs have developed mainly over the past 15 years. Successful trials of AVs have been taking place - particularly by Google and Tesla. An AV was tested by Google in 2008 on a closed road at 25 miles per hour.  Today, the car can operate at 75 miles per hour in real-life conditions.  Listen to Google Self-drive car project here.  Google AVs have clocked over 1.7 million miles on designated urban routes and has been a great learning exercise.  Tesla has been installing AV software in their electric cars and have collected data over 1.2 billion miles under varied driving conditions. Autonomous trucks are being used successfully in mining for the past several years.

There are many outstanding issues to be resolved before a fully autonomous car could be ready for urban driving in all weather conditions etc.  Currently, AVs do not deal well with inclement weather - heavy rain or snow.  They also do not recognize new features in signaling or changes made on the roads to deal with emergencies etc.  Obviously there is lot more work to be done.  
The issue of security against hacking of AV's computer system is an interesting one.  A hack proof software is never going to be possible.  If one looks at the history of hacking computer systems, it is almost always to steal information. Controlling the software operation is not generally attempted.  That is why, systems of national importance like electricity grids, air traffic control systems etc. have operated satisfactorily for many years - but are no less vulnerable than the software in AVs.  Also hacking an individual computer is easier than a network of computers. Therefore, the problem of malicious acts against the network is real and in theory will always be a possibility; one has to develop procedures and checks to guard against external hostile acts.

Some Consequences of AV Dominance: There are some unexpected consequences if and when autonomous vehicles take the major market share.  If, as predicted, the number of cars is reduced to 50%, what will the current car manufacturers do?  Most of them wouldn't be making AVs anyway.  One could expect massive bankruptcies with loss of jobs.  In a shared-AVs society, taxi drivers will not be needed - another lot of massive loss of jobs.  On the other hand, many new jobs will be created in software and digital industry.  The situation will be interesting to say the least. 

I have also stated that AVs will allow freedom to travel to the disabled, very old and the young.  The extra demand will increase vehicle traveled miles (VTM).  This will create more pollution and also more congestion.  People might decide to live further away from city centres - increasing VTM further. It is difficult to quantify the increase in VTM at this stage but they could be significant.  Interesting times ahead.
However, remember Jevons Paradox:  An increase in efficiency tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

Final Word:  The megatrend of substitution of current transport by autonomous vehicles is firmly established and all barriers to penetration of AVs into transport will be resolved over the next 50 years.  The initial stages will see AVs adopted in areas where the journeys are not complex - trucks in mining industry are already being used successfully.  Other promising area might be buses on long distance routes.  In the mean time, many features being developed for AVs will be installed in electric vehicles driven by humans.  This development could have distracting effects and can also generate feeling of security making human driven car journeys even more dangerous.  
At present, AV technology is expensive but with large uptake the cost will come down to about $3000.  To start with AVs will be shared cars - aTaxis - and people will not own personal vehicles.  This will result in a paradigm shift in the way we view transport.  
Rapid charging points with a sensible pricing structure is a pre-requisite for a wide adoption of electric cars. Governments and private enterprises are encouraging the development of such networks; hopefully, a viable network will be available within the next decade.  

More on autonomous vehicles a recent article - see and links therein.  

Will love to hear your comments - please send them to ektalks@yahoo.co.uk

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