Monday, December 21, 2015

Driverless Cars - the Next Big Thing?

Autonomous cars have been talked about a lot in recent months. This is an especially hot topic in Ann Arbor, where three thousand or so  vehicles equipped with experimental control or assistance devices have been driving around for the last several years along with everybody else.. And where the University of Michigan this summer opened a test facility known as "M City" to provide a life-size, outdoor laboratory for testing more advanced control systems.

Here's a thought-provoking conclusion to an article in The Michigan Engineer, a University of Michigan publication for alumni of the School of Engineering:

Opinions vary widely on when large numbers of driverless vehicles will hit the streets. But most experts agree on one thing: Driverless is coming. And its going to change everything. The goal of safe, commercially viable driverless technology seems closer than ever.

But is the adoption of driverless technology the end of the story or the beginning? Many transportation experts see it as just another piece of a still-evolving, 21st-century transportation puzzle, one that includes not just new ways to get around, but a radical rethinking of what we put into transportation, what we get out of it and how we want it to fit into our lives.

In that sense, driverless technology is more than just a new way to schlep your kid to soccer practice. It's a catalyst for change. And it's already sparking conversa­tions and raising questions in a way that oil embargoes, the electric car, light rail, and countless other Next Big Things all failed to do. Finding answers won't be quick, or easy. But it could be our biggest opportunity to rethink transportation in 100 years. And if we want to keep up with the technology, we'd better get rolling.

--The Michigan Engineer, Fall, 2015
Research on driverless cars is being done in several countries, by big car manufacturers, universities, and futurists with deep pockets, like Google. I confess to having quite a few doubts about whether automating road vehicles is going to solve more problems than it creates.

A while back, I listed all the problems that automobile-dependence cause; let's go back and take a look at those and think about what driverless car implementation does.
  1. Personal health. People who go from place to place primarily by car tend to be less healthy than those who walk, bike, or even walk only as far as the nearest station or bus stop.
    Much of that is due to physical exercise, which will not be helped by driverless cars. But another cause of ill-health is the stress of driving on congested roads and highways. Driverless cars should relieve of of some of that stress...but probably not stress caused to slow travel due to congestion.
  2. Mass. Automobiles are fairly heavy and bulky. If we continue to use them primarily for individual travel, rather than group travel, their mass will add up to a lot. This is a problem for a number of reasons. The energy required to move objects is proportional to their mass. Even as motors become more efficient, this fundamental law of physics will not change. More energy will always be required to propel a heavier vehicle than a lighter one. And the production of large numbers of vehicles for individual travelers requires more natural resources than production of smaller numbers of vehicles required for mass transportation.
    I believe driverless cars will eventually be able to lose a lot of their weight for a couple of reasons. First is the general progress being made in lighter, stronger materials. Second, much of the bulk of today's vehicles is an attempt to cocoon the occupants to protect them when crashes occur. As the safety of driverless vehicles becomes the norm, rather than the exception, this will no longer be perceived as a necessary safety feature.
    But the same will be true for mass transit vehicles: improved motive efficiency and lighter, stronger materials, will lower their mass and their energy requirements as well.
    (And by the way, autonomous trains have been operating for years. Vancouver's "SkyTrain" [below] is one of several.)
  3. Congestion. The primary appeal of automobiles - whether manually or autonomously controlled - is their ability to take us wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go. No need to wait for anyone else, no need to go to a station or pick-up point. Just jump in the car and go. It's a highly effective mode of transportation.
    The problem comes with events that bring large numbers of people to the same place at the same time. Inconveniences like work, and conveniences like sporting matches. If people continue to use automobiles for transporting only one or two people at a time, automating them will do little to relieve the congestion issues. There will still be relatively large masses of vehicles transporting relatively small numbers of people.
    If we want to move people efficiently, it will have to be with a lower ratio of vehicle mass to people, and that can only be done with (no pun intended!) mass transit.
  4. Land area. Automobiles, unless they are incredibly tiny, still require more space than public transportation vehicles, because so many more of them are needed to transport the same number of people. There's an interesting possibility offered by autonomous vehicles: to use them more like a huge fleet of taxis (or Uber or Lyft cars). Theoretically, the cost of running a fleet of autonomous vehicles will be much more affordable than running the same size fleet of vehicles with drivers, right? So as the market works autonomous vehicle technology into its business models, it should become unnecessary to own one of your own. You should be able to order one, or reserve one in advance, jump in, and walk away without a backward glance when you reach your destination. No need to park it either at home, at work, or at the store. This will reduce the need for city parking, parking lots for stores, and garages for houses, making possible greater density and more effective, efficient use of land.
    But the vehicles will still need to park somewhere when they're not in use, and that will still require more space than public transit vehicles. Vehicles leaving a large city at the end of morning rush to go park, or returning to the city at the beginning of evening rush, will create secondary rush hours in the opposite direction, and will require potentially significant amounts of energy to propel them as they run in and out empty.
There are also a lot of unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles.
  • How much will it cost - and who will pay - for the public infrastructure to make their autonomous operation reliable? As far as I know, fully autonomous vehicles require a new, supportive infrastructure of radio and possibly visible communication devices. The cost of installing this on hundreds of thousands of miles of public roadways could add up.
  • How will insurance work? Will it be covered, as some have suggested, by the manufacturers?
  • How much will individual autonomous vehicles cost to own? Even if the technology is inexpensive when mass-produced, will the vehicle owners need to pay up-front or periodically for their share of the autonomous vehicle infrastructure?
  • How many American automobile owners will be willing to give up owning a personal vehicle and use autonomous cars as rental or taxi vehicles? This will depend on the business model the evolves for shared autonomous vehicle use. It will also depend on willingness to give up the car as a symbol of personal identity, and a place to leave the extra junk that people don't have anyplace else for. (Admit it - we all use our cars that way!)
Until we know the answers, we won't know whether driverless cars are a catalyst for true change, or just the "Next Big Thing".

Friday, August 14, 2015

Learning to Pay Our Way

In July, I attended an international gathering of passenger rail experts from forty-two countries. I was impressed by how many countries that aren't in the top-tier of world economies are investing a lot of resources in enhanced and high speed passenger rail projects. Certainly, very few of the 42 rank anywhere close to the United States or Canada in economic power, yet they have found the will and the money to build what we in North America have deemed "too expensive".
North American skeptics often claim that our countries are too large and our population too spread out to make passenger trains an effective means of transportation. Like many myths, there is a grain of truth in this. What is ignored is that there are many regions in North America with size and density very similar to regions in other parts of the world where passenger rail service works very well.
However, the trends in this hemisphere are not looking as bad as they were a few years ago.
While the United States and Canada still have many political leaders who are skeptical of the economic benefits of passenger rail service, I am encouraged by signs of progress. The key seems to be demonstrating models of private investment that are profitable. The two leading examples are Florida East Coast's Miami to Orlando 110 MPH project, funded through long-term real estate holdings and, as of last week, permission to sell tax-free bonds; and the privately funded Texas Central Railway, working with Central Japan Railway to build 205 MPH service Dallas to Houston. (There are links to more info at the end of this post.)
Texas Central plans to use Japanese Series 700i Shinkensen rolling stock.

Of course, it will take time to demonstrate the success of these projects. And during that time, I believe it is critical that we learn what we can from the economic and engineering experience of Europe and Asia. We must not let our pride in past accomplishments lead us to stumble along making the mistakes others have made and learned from.
Plenary Session at UIC High Speed Rail 2015 Conference, Tokyo
With that goal in mind, I have taken the initiative and reached out to researchers in Japan, to set up a communication channel by which North Americans can explore options that have failed, as well as those that have worked. So far, I have received a positive response from Dr. Fumio Kurosaki, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Transportation Economics, Tokyo.

Why start with Japan? For a couple of reasons. First, because that's where the international gathering of rail experts took place, giving me a chance to meet quite a few Japanese rail researchers, in engineering as well as in economics. But also because I was impressed by the amount of energy the Japanese rail community has been putting in to research, and because I experienced the evidence of their success while touring the country by rail.

Sapporo Airport Express
Right now in the United States, more serious attention is being given to expanding our transportation options through rail. States like Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, and Minnesota have allocated considerable resources to passenger rail expansion.

North Carolina state-supported regional passenger service
Here in Michigan, "the Auto State", there are four projects under serious consideration: regional service Detroit to Holland, and Traverse City to Ann Arbor; commuter service Detroit to Ann Arbor, and Howell to Ann Arbor.
The economic model of these projects, however, has been based on the hope of government funding. This puts a huge hurdle in their path to success, given today's legislative mood. While commuter service will probably always be government funded (given the heavy - and popular - government subsidies to highway travel), regional services have the potential to be profitable, if they are done right.
I believe the key is to explore with business leaders and investors in North America how to "do it right". European and Asian rail service is far ahead of ours in economic independence, particularly in Japan, where almost all intercity rail service is privately funded. But here in North America, we cannot adopt the models of Europe and Asia without modification, because we have a different railroad ownership structure and different governing laws.
My goal in launching this project is to facilitate the exploration process. How can we, in North America, take best practices of Europe and Asia and adapt them to our situation? How can we move toward an American railway ownership and legal structure that rewards private enterprise in passenger service? This is not a short-term effort to find a "quick fix" because there aren't any. Rather, it is a long-term effort with the goal of opening dialog between North America and the best minds in railroading around the world, as demonstrated by the evidence of financial and engineering success.
I'll give you more details shortly - and I promise this time it won't be two years!