Autonomous Vehicle, Electric Vehicle – What’s Next?

Autonomous Vehicles and Electric Vehicles are both coming. What will it mean for how we think of transport in the next 50 years or so?

Let us have a dream. I live in 2067 in a well-appointed house well out of town. New York is far away but that’s where the action is – has been for centuries, still is. I don’t have to be there every day, but it’s still often enough and so I need to get to my local airport frequently. The ban of private drones over Manhattan means that my personal drone is a nice toy, but otherwise useless.

So I just get into my AV and say – take me to 57th Street. And my AV does that. I tell it to pick me up at 9 in the evening at that nice bar on 5th Avenue – you know the one I usually go to? The trip into town takes 20 minutes, first on the reserved lane on the freeway, then diving into the new AV-only tunnel into Manhattan (built in 2025) and then straight to my office on 57th.

Where does my AV go after that? I have no idea and I don’t really care, it is capable of looking after itself. Out of curiosity I look at its log: it ambled down into Long Island where it found an empty slot in disused Mall car park and it hung around there for a few hours, then came back into Manhattan, loitered around my usual watering holes (it knows I often end up in a different place and time from what I initially tell it) before finally picking me up at midnight way down by the ancient World Trade Centre.

LA, SF, NY all have similar issues – lots of travel at peak times, congestion, no chance of parking where you want to go. What do users want is seamless hassle-free travel. No hanging around stations, no waiting for Cab/Uber to turn up –just take me from here to there.

So how can AV deliver that? We realise that petrol addiction is dangerous, Africa, India are still big consumers and, for now at least, they can afford to pay top dollar.

But we are lucky the energy revolution in the U.S., the flight into renewables and the quick partial conversion to EV in the 20’s meant we avoided the oil crunch. Of course, China got there first, with its mandatory EV for all passenger vehicles by 2030 (beating the rest of the world by 10 years).

But autonomous electric vehicles need roads to travel on and these are in short supply. And so here is the real silver lining: digital trains. Autonomous electric vehicles can link together to form digital trains thus increasing the capacity of a freeway lane by a factor of 6.

What is even cooler is dynamic platooning, where the control system ensures there is never any slowing down at merging traffic – the platoon reconfigures itself to allow merging traffic seamlessly.

Of course, it all means you hand over control to your autonomous electric vehicle and on trips which are in high demand – as into Manhattan – and you will have to pay, just as you do on toll roads today. But this is the digital age where this is all done seamlessly in the cloud.

Your digital assistant knows your plans and will book slots accordingly, including the trip to the airport (no longer JFK, that got closed in 2045 when all passenger terminals were turned into museums) delivering you directly to your – alas – shared aircraft (you still haven’t got to having your own supersonic jet).

Now, back to present day reality – what needs to happen for this scenario to play out?

We do not have unlimited resources so, inevitably, we will have to build any revolution on infrastructure and technology we already have. The last century saw the creation of the car society, and so it is inevitable that, whatever we do, it will build on that (4.3 million miles of US paved roads).

The previous century was built on the railway (0.25 million miles of US track) which is still an important but diminishing part of the transport system – in the US it has found its niche in freight transport and urban mass transportation.

So building on the existing infrastructure and patching it where need be, seems the most likely scenario. What does our AV need to do? First it needs to be able to increase capacity by running very close to the preceding vehicle – in other words, to form a platoon. That platoon must be able to form and reform dynamically so the AV never slows down.

This last requirement is difficult when dealing with grade junctions, so it seems likely that the system will demand segregated tracks. Some of these tracks will become available by converting existing infrastructure – such as railways, trams and reserved bus lanes. But they will probably not be sufficient to handle all demand.

In dense city centres, new infrastructure will be needed – sometimes elevated, but more often underground – in tunnels. Tunnel technology will, by 2050, be completely revolutionised as a result of robotic technology.

The commuter train and subway will die from lack of support, making either interesting historical artefacts or converted to new uses. The parallel today is the conversion of 19th Century ports to vibrant downtown areas – the advent of containers having moved that activity away from the city.

Who are the players who will most benefit from this revolution? The utter failure of the Apple car and the tough competition to Tesla will likely drive the car design revolution to China (with strong competition from EU). Car manufacturers will reposition themselves as low-cost providers of all-electric transport pods – most of which will initially be dual purpose (car and digital train in one package).

Over time the cost of these will be ruthlessly driven down by the increasing digitalisation of all functions as well as even more advanced manufacturing systems. The petrol engine with its thousands of parts will become another historical relic – “I can’t believe the complexity!” being a likely reaction. Of course, that complexity will transition into software – each AVEV massively more powerful than the most powerful computers today.

I am an optimist – this could all happen if we believe we can use technology to build a new future from the ashes of the past. Our CarTube project is an exploration of such a system and we hope there will be many imitators.

Lars Hesselgren is Director of Research and Senior Associate Partner at PLP Architecture. He is a founding director of the SmartGeometry group which is encouraging the spread of parametric thinking as an architectural design discipline. Currently he is leading a research and concept design for Cartube, a pioneering mobility solution.