Welcome the automotive industry’s oil-less future

I first became aware of autonomous cars when I read of Google’s successful attempt last year to drive a Prius from San Francisco to Los Angeles without human intervention. To be clear, a human was in the car, but he was there only in case he was needed — and the need never came up. Since that time, the Prius has driven tens of thousands of miles as Google steadily improves the software and hardware that will replace what automotive writer Dan Neil calls the “wetware” of human beings.

Last month, Nissan announced that it was going to bring to market an autonomous vehicle in 2020. Just six years from now, presumably, one will be able to buy a car that will drive its owner to work. Stop and think about that for a minute. Those of us who commute daily on the notorious Los Angeles freeways will be able to buy a car that we can program with our destination, and then we can buckle up the seat belt and relax with a cup of coffee and the paper while the car backs out of the garage and proceeds to drive us to work.

The implications for our lives, for our society, environment and geopolitics are worth pondering — and getting excited about.

As a Nissan LEAF salesman, and activist/advocate for electric vehicles, I had the rare privilege to ride in Nissan’s autonomous car, a converted 2012 LEAF, the exact model I drive myself. Nissan was demonstrating the vehicle on a secure route set up on the El Toro Marine Base in Orange County.

Nissan’s silver autonomous LEAF had rectangular slots of approximately 2 inches by 8 inches on both sides as well as front and back. These were laser sensors, I was told, that, along with several button-sized sonic sensors and four cameras, gathered data on the physical surroundings of the car. The sonic and laser sensors “read” the traffic and any possible objects that could interact with the car while the cameras read the stop signs and speed limit signs.

Four of us got in the car and the driver began driving normally. After a few seconds, he flipped a switch and took his hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals — the computer and its sensors were now in control of our car.

Because we weren’t on a real road with real traffic, it wasn’t scary, but it was still a bit disconcerting. We watched as the car traveled along the road, keeping perfectly between the white lines and driving the posted speed limit. After driving a short distance making turns and stopping at stop signs, we came across some cars parked along side of the road. Some engineers had a human dummy on wheels that they controlled with a long pole. As we approached, they quickly shoved the figure into our path, mimicking a person suddenly walking into traffic from between parked cars, something that happens all too frequently with deadly consequences. In our case, the car immediately took evasive action, skirting the “person.” It was easily as quick an action as your typical driver would take if he or she were paying attention. At the end of the ride, we all got out of the car, the operator pushed a button on the fob, and we watched as the car drove down a row of cars in a parking lot, paused while an SUV pulled out of a spot, then backed into the empty space perfectly in one move.

Google and Nissan are not alone in this field. GM, BMW, Toyota, Mercedes and the upstart Tesla are all working toward the goal of releasing self-driving cars in the next decade. Convincing the safety regulators and the insurance companies comes first. No citizen will be allowed to own one of these cars until both of those entities give it a green light. California and Nevada have both passed laws specifically giving companies the permission to test these vehicles on our roads.

So, what will a future of autonomous cars be like? 

It will be safer. Paying attention, unfortunately, is not something at which many drivers are particularly adept. 

According to Nissan, there are 6 million crashes in the United States every year, costing $160 billion and ranking as the top cause of death for 4- to 34-year-olds; 93 percent of those car accidents are caused by human error, mostly due to inattention.

So, when I talk to people about autonomous cars, their initial reticence is quickly tempered after hearing these statistics. Humans have set the bar pretty low for computers to surpass. With these cars, the number of traffic accidents would begin to drop immediately. Injuries, fatalities and the massive financial cost would gradually be reduced as the public embraces this safer means of travel. 

They will be programmed to drive with efficiency and safety as the two highest priorities. The combination of efficient driving and electric vehicles, which are inherently more efficient than internal combustion, will result in a dramatic drop in the use of oil for personal transportation.

The geopolitical implications of this are vast. As America and other nations become less dependent on foreign oil, the often corrupt or cruel regimes that rely on oil revenue would collapse.

Back home, even bigger changes would occur. The purchase of cars for personal use will taper off because what people want is to be transported from point A to point B. A high percentage of folks will gladly give up ownership of a car and let the computers do the driving for us.

There are several new companies that combine social networking with transportation. Lyft, Sidecar and Uber are well-known examples. Much like a taxi, they can be summoned with a smart-phone app.  Right now, most are driving a conventional internal combustion car, but soon, they’ll switch to electric cars as the charging infrastructure becomes ubiquitous. At some point, the Uber car will come to pick you up, but there will be no driver. As a matter of fact, the car will not even have a steering wheel. It will be designed from the start as a 100 percent self-driving vehicle with no human controls needed.

Crazy? No. Economics will mandate this future.

Consider the costs of owning a car. You have to buy the car, insure the car, maintain the car, fuel the car, wash the car, house the car and park the car. All of that costs a lot of money, especially when you consider that the car may sit for 22 hours each day doing absolutely nothing but taking up space that you have to pay for. When you bought your house or condo, or rented your apartment, if there is a garage or parking space involved, you are paying for it. In most cases, this is a lot of money. If you didn’t have a car, you could buy a house, condo or rent an apartment that was constructed with no parking and save that money. There is a high-rise condo building proposed for Boston that’s generating controversy because it purposely has no parking. Building codes today mandate a certain number of parking spaces for each unit of living space. In a future of self-driving cars, there will be no need to spend that money and take up that space for cars because people won’t own them.

A single four-passenger electric driverless car could easily take the place of 10 to 20 cars. A typical scenario would involve a commuter who wants a car at her door at 7:30 every morning. She walks outside at 7:30 and gets into “her” car. If she’s willing to share the ride, then she’ll pay less. The computer knows where everyone using the service lives and where they want to go, so a single car will design a route to efficiently pick up and deliver everyone with minimum time spent and distance traveled. While the initial wave of commuters are at work, the same car will continue picking up people throughout the day, stopping now and then at high-powered charging stations to recharge. After work the commuters are picked up and delivered back home. Then the car is kept busy in the evening taking folks to movies, restaurants and clubs, and delivering them home safely, no matter how much they’ve had to drink. A self-driving car is always a designated driver!

Because one car can essentially work 24/7, the cost drops dramatically, EVs are inherently cheaper to operate, and getting that kind of use out of one car means the cost of the ride to the end user can be very inexpensive. This is why the economics of this technology will drive the transition. When all you want is to get from point A to point B, why not take the least expensive and safest method?

And yes, I know there are many of you who are saying to yourselves that you’ll never give up your car, and that’s OK. Not to be morbid, but you’ll all die eventually — that’s what we humans do. Surveys of the youth of today show a marked decrease in the number of them who want cars. They are the ones using Uber and Lyft, and they will eventually replace us old car-lovers.

Paul Scott is a co-founder of Plug In America, the nation’s leading nonprofit voice for consumer adoption of electric vehicles. He sells electric cars and solar power for a living.