The core purpose of technology is to make things easier for humankind, closing the gap between us and our desired destination or result. Horses, carts, cars, trucks, motorbikes and the like have always needed a human to operate them but vehicles that drive themselves, whilst we laze on the backseat, are on the horizon.
A car that drives itself has been depicted as the pinnacle of car innovation since the automobile’s birth over a hundred years ago. Over the decades, we’ve seen Batman and Robin crime-fighting in the self-driving Batmobile, David Hasselhoff enjoying laughs and conversation with his sentient self-driving car, KITT, in Knight Rider, and even the little bug with a big attitude – Herbie, The Love Bug. Hollywood aside, today’s engineers and scientists aren’t going down the route of imbuing a VW Beetle with a soul, instead, they’re building complex and sophisticated AI systems that can accurately process real-time external data and react accordingly. Autonomous vehicles are now legal in twenty-nine US states and according to Elon Musk, Tesla’s autonomous driving system will be so advanced by 2020 that drivers need not pay any attention to the road. Passengers and drivers alike will be free to work, play, eat, drink or even play video games.
One industry giant looking to show off tomorrow's tech, for today's market is Toyota. Planning to use the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as the perfect arena to debut their automated shuttles, Toyota’s e-Palettes aim to be ferrying athletes around the villages and to and from the stadiums. Completely autonomous, these shuttles have no driver’s seat, maximising the space for passengers and even other services. Toyota have prospected a variety of uses for the e-Palette; mobile restaurants, shops, changing rooms, salons – you name it. Imagine how much clearer your schedule could be if you hopped in an e-Palette that could not only take you to work but also had a hairdressing service on board to give you a trim en route. Urban retail and service industries could be completely revolutionised – no customers, no problem. Simply move onto the next spot, all without lifting a finger or business rates.
In Sweden, a movement towards autonomous vehicles looks at a conceptual ’City of Tomorrow’. Their initiative, aptly named ‘Drive Sweden’, is an approach looking at where the introduction of a fully autonomous road system could take us. Essentially, highlighting how the autonomous vehicle industry could change the way cities function and even feel, Drive Sweden illustrates how advantageous less time spent in cars would be. A fully-automated road system would mean all vehicles being autonomous, enabling them to react to each other’s movements. These vehicles could follow extremely efficient and regular routes – avoiding collisions and accidents. With such streamlined routes, roads could be made narrower and pedestrian spaces could be increased. Regulated pick-up and drop-off times would mean no need for huge car parks, creating acres of space for parks, green areas or just about anything else that gives space back to humans instead of a huge storage pen for vehicles. Autonomy in vehicles also drastically increases the efficiency or transporting goods and delivery services, highly accurate pick-ups and drop-offs make for slick transactions. This really emphasises what technology could do for us, enhance our life by simplifying tasks, and crucially giving back our time.
This is only a glimpse of the 'Drive Sweden' project, head here to find out more and even watch their whimsical animation.
Autonomous vehicles certainly seem to have great potential, anything that allows us to take a backseat (literally) and complete other activities is always going to be a winner. Let’s not forget to mention the amazing advantages a system like this could bring to those who don’t have typical and easy access to mobility services already – decked out with the correct facilities these vehicles could be positively life-changing for many people with disabilities. Imagine a world where 285 million visually-impaired are liberated, free to travel without limitation. A world where travel isn’t limited by your capability to drive, is a world closer to equal opportunity for all. We can safely say that self-driving vehicles will be driving themselves and society straight into the future.