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article imageA look at self-driving technology and its benefits and impacts

By Karen Graham     Feb 26, 2016 in Technology
Driverless vehicle technology has been hailed as the answer to a number of transportation problems. We have been told this new technology will not only be environmentally friendly, but will help in saving energy.
The idea of having driverless cars and trucks on our roads is still in the future, but it is questionable if all scenarios have been looked at closely to determine the real advantages and impacts, both positive or negative, to becoming a driverless society.
Dr. Zia Wadud, Associate Professor in the University of Leeds' Faculty of Engineering and a research group leader in the University's Institute for Transport Studies, is the lead author of a study that looked closely at the future of autonomous driving systems.
Dr. Wadud's team of researchers, along with researchers from the University of Washington and Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, found that the actual impact of this new technology may be complicated by the change in our relationship with our cars.
Co-author Don MacKenzie, a UW assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering said, “We’d heard a lot of hype about self-driving cars and how they could help solve a lot of the problems we have in the transportation system — things like congestion, safety, energy consumption, and so on."
Highway 401 in Ontario  which passes through Toronto  suffers chronic traffic congestion despite its...
Highway 401 in Ontario, which passes through Toronto, suffers chronic traffic congestion despite its up to 18 lanes. This scene would be a thing of the past with fully automated vehicles.
Robert Jack (CC BY-SA 2.0)
With this in mind, the researchers decided to look at the technology in a dispassionate way and analyze its potential benefits using data on car and truck use, driver licenses, and vehicle running costs to develop a model of driverless technology's impact on energy demand at various levels of automation.
The reader must keep in mind the society we live in today, and the possible changes in our society within the next 30 years or so. The research team had to do this, taking into account population growth, an increased number of the aging, and other socio-economic factors.
What they found is reason enough to give us pause, because the benefits of automation didn't all come from the technology itself, but in the changes in "how, or how much we will be using our vehicles," MacKenzie told NEWS 1130.
"The biggest potential downside is increased travel demand due to a lower cost of the drivers time in the vehicle. This is reduced by allowing the driver to work, meet, read a book, play games or whatever they want to do in the vehicle instead of driving.”
Increased travel demand could mean that people will ditch using public transport such as buses and trains, especially when they realize they can relax in their own vehicles and get to their destination without having to pay for the trip. But by doing so, we will end up increasing the number of cars ion the road and energy consumption by up to 60 percent, says the Daily Mail.
Dr. Wadud said: "When you make a decision about transport, you don't just think about the out-of-pocket costs of the train ticket or the car's petrol; you also take into account non-financial costs.
The researchers did find a number of benefits to having autonomous cars on the road. There could be a drop in energy costs because of more efficient computer-directed control. Then there is improved traffic flow with a reduction in traffic jams. The speed limit could be increased because everyone would be in a computer-controlled vehicle operated in the "cloud."
And when there is an increased number of cars on the highway, "platooning" would be used, moving the cars very close together in lines, thus providing aerodynamic savings of up to 20 percent. And of course, there would be a reduction in the number of accidents and lives lost, an incalculable figure.
Basically, the attractiveness of self-driving cars could end up being our downfall, especially if they are highly automated and if more people choose to use them instead of public transportation. To do so would negate any energy efficiency benefits we think we have gained.
“The key take-away is that we need to research and plan for automated vehicles, but automation alone is not going to solve our problems — at least not without other policy intervention," said MacKenzie.
The study, "Help or hindrance? The travel, energy and carbon impacts of highly automated vehicles," was published in the journal Transportation Research Part A in the April 2016 issue.
More about driverless cars, selfdriving technology, more reliance on roads, Energy efficiency, road and energy consumption
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