Opening up more space: Connectivity

Autonomous driving frees up space.

  • 11. February 2016
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Photos: Daimler
  • Text: Peter Thomas
  • Illustration: Mario Wagner

Autonomous, electric and connected driving: a sea change in how we use cars will fundamentally change the spaces that we occupy – from the interior of our vehicles to the cities of tomorrow.

The truck indicates, pulls out, accelerates, overtakes and then pulls back in to the inside lane. The same procedure occurs hundreds of thousands of times a day on Europe’s motorways. But this time something is different: no one has their hands on the steering wheel. The truck is driving itself. Meanwhile, its driver is finishing off his paperwork on a tablet and re-takes control only when the vehicle turns off from the motorway onto the trunk roads and into urban traffic.

Ever since 2015, when the Mercedes-Benz Actros with Highway Pilot became the first series production truck to drive semi-autonomously on a German motorway, it has been clear that this is what the near future of autonomous driving will look like: the vehicle is fitted with the traditional man-machine interfaces such as steering wheel and accelerator pedal, and it works fully autonomously only in certain environments such as motorways. It is the first step in the “urban mobility pathway” described in the 2015 OECD study ‘Automated and Autonomous Driving Regulation under Uncertainty’.

Fully autonomous cybercars

The technology that will underpin the development of autonomous driving in the near future is actually already here in the form of today’s assistance systems. Nevertheless, the OECD paper predicts that it will take until 2030 for fully autonomous ‘cybercars’ – driverless taxis and delivery vans – to be an everyday sight in mixed traffic. By that point, the concept of space and our experience of it within the context of driving will have radically changed.

Even today, cars that are designed solely for autonomous driving are offering a glimpse of what this might be like. They include Google’s prototype vehicles and the now firmly established ‘taxi pods’ at London’s Heathrow Airport, which drive themselves along dedicated tracks.

Similar pods will be in use in day-to-day road traffic by 2030. The fleet of Heathrow pods that offer on-demand transport between the Terminal 5 car park and the terminal itself already have the potential to replace 50,000 conventional bus journeys every year, which will save huge amounts of energy over the long term. This is according to a study by the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol.

Taxi-Pods on the road

The inside of a car, but not as you know it

Inside the pods the passengers face each other rather than the direction of travel. This marks a departure from the traditional interior concept used by almost all motorised vehicles since the car was invented 130 years ago by Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. So whether it was a saloon, convertible, coupé or landaulet – all body types that followed the carriage tradition – the driver and passengers always looked in the same direction and so perceived the space from the chauffeur’s point of view.

But the autonomous, electrically powered and digitally connected vehicle, the driverless car, is opening up new perspectives. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car, with its groundbreaking aesthetics and technology, demonstrated how this will fundamentally change the interior of our vehicles. Unveiled in 2015 at the CES electronics exhibition in Las Vegas, the F 015 shows what the self-driving car might look like after its shape has been emancipated from the need to have a driver, just as the motor car succeeded in freeing itself from the shape of the carriage at the turn of the last century.

The coming years will change not only the way in which cars are used but also how they look and how they are powered. We are on the cusp of a sea change in the way we think about transportation: away from the dominance of the vehicle as a personal possession and towards new forms of shared ownership and on-demand driving. This will also have an impact on industries such as insurance.

Passengers have always looked in the same direction

40 per cent fall in insurance claims by 2040 The 2015 KPMG study ‘Automobile Insurance in the Era of Autonomous Vehicles’ predicts that the rise of autonomous driving will cause the volume of insurance claims to fall by around 40 percent by 2040. This will be accompanied by a need for new business models that will answer questions such as who holds ultimate responsibility for the actions of an autonomous vehicle. Our urban environments will be changed more than any other by self-driving cars. Because when driverless vehicles are not being used there will be no need for them to remain parked close to a home or place of work. It might be possible, for example, to instead have an automatic parking management system – say, using underground parking facilities with charging stations – that would relieve town and city centres from the overbearing presence of parked cars taking up valuable space. Shared vehicles, meanwhile, will be permanently on the move instead of merely waiting for their next occupant. In its 2015 paper ‘Urban Mobility System Upgrade. How Shared Self-Driving Cars Could Change City Traffic’, the International Transport Forum predicts that the utilisation rate of certain cars will increase dramatically thanks to new concepts and services.

Ten times as many journeys as today’s cars

This could mean that in a town or city you would need only around one tenth of the number of cars that are currently in use today to perform the same number of journeys. The average self-driving vehicle will therefore be used more than ten times as much as a present-day car. During the transition period in particular this could present real challenges in the management of urban traffic flows.

There will also be a change in the amount of space needed for car parks, which will fall by up to 80 per cent in big cities. Traditional filling stations will also become rarer as they are initially replaced by a charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. This transformation will free up space that is so badly needed in densely populated regions. As the issue of parking requirements shows, mobility is about much more than just getting from A to B. It also has an enduring impact on how we define, shape and perceive the spaces that we occupy.

Neon beacons of our car-centric lives

The car changed the face of the city in the 20th century: its impact is manifest in everything from urbanisation along the multi-lane expressways that spread out from the cities, to the very first multi-level car parks, built as cathedrals to personal transport. But other chapters in this story include the rush-hour traffic jams, the inevitable evening search for a parking space in busy parts of town, the filling station as a neon beacon of our car-centric lives and the kaleidoscope of traffic lights.

The key technologies for autonomous driving are close to being launched into series production. Mercedes-Benz is demonstrating this with the new E-Class that had its premiere at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show and is taking connectivity to the next level. But when will we begin to notice the changes that self-driving cars will bring to everyday road traffic?

The demand for parking spaces will drop 80%

Faster-flowing motorway traffic

‘Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles’, a study carried out back in 2013 by the ENO Center for Transportation, predicts that this will not happen immediately, but will depend to a certain extent on the level of market penetration of self-driving cars. The authors anticipate that it would take only a 10 percent penetration rate for there to be a very positive impact on motorway traffic flows, whereas a 95 percent penetration rate would likely be required for fully autonomous intersection management.

Virtually every expert agrees that the rise of whole fleets of these vehicles will change not only our roads but also, in the medium term, the entire urban environment. The swarm intelligence of self-driving cars has the potential to unite previously strictly separated functions such as private cars and taxis, delivery vans and car sharing vehicles while at the same time raising efficiency.

And it will greatly reduce the number and severity of accidents, as highlighted by the Rand Corporation in its 2014 paper ‘Autonomous Vehicle Technology. A Guide for Policymakers’. In the beginning, people will acquaint themselves with this new technology mainly by comparing it with the existing paradigm of the car that is steered by a driver. Of course, it wasn’t much different after 1886 when the motor car was often referred to a “horseless carriage”.

Panoramic views and spherical openness

Younger people in particular, however, will quickly learn to appreciate the security, efficiency and convenience offered by self-driving cars. The KPMG automobile insurance study expects early adopters aged between 15 and 44 to make up more than 80 percent of the market. This is the group for whom the “horseless carriage 2.0” will become a reality.

A departure from the need to the face the direction of travel, new opportunities for panoramic views, and vehicle interiors that offer an almost spherical openness. The self-driving pods at London Heathrow are pointing the way to the future: in the study carried out by the University of Bristol, these futuristic vehicles received the highest score out of all means of public transport at Britain’s biggest airport.

Fleets of these vehicles may be travelling on public roads by 2030 or 2035, but before that point arrives, various legal issues have to be resolved. Because as our cars change, so must the legislative framework governing our roads. One by one, traffic rules and regulations will need to be adapted to cater to autonomous driving.

The new E-Class is currently getting a head start on this trend as it undergoes testing on the state and interstate highways in Nevada. Autonomous driving in normal road traffic is then set to have its premiere in 2017 in California. The US state has proposed a set of rules and regulations that will allow the use of self-driving vehicles from next year, under the proviso that they must be fitted with a steering wheel and that the driver must be able to re-take control at all times.

Growing confidence in car security

Related topics.