Big Trends in Land-Based Modes of Transportation
There are 2 big trends that are happening right now in the development of future land-based modes of transportation. The first is the development of autonomous, self-driving vehicles and the second is continued work in perfecting electrically powered drive trains for cars and trucks.
Obstacles to Widespread Adoption
A whole array of obstacles stands in the way of the widespread adoption of both these technologies. For electric cars these issues are mostly economic and infrastructure related. As of 2017 the retail price of an electric vehicle (EV) is typically too high in comparison to gasoline/diesel cars and thus prevents the widespread adoption of the technology. The Tesla model S (admittedly intended for the upscale market) for example is listed at $68,000 and although the Tesla 3 is more modestly priced at about $35,000 the company has not been able to reach their desired production targets. And the driving range of an EV has led to a whole new psychic malady – “range anxiety” where owners are afraid of being too far away from a recharging location. As for autonomous vehicles the obstacles are practical, economic, and social. What with all of the fancy, sophisticated electronics that will be required, there will definitely be a premium on the price of a self-driving car. And what happens when one of these cars is in an accident? As a society we have not even begun to think about liability in such a scenario.
But technology is advancing way faster than the general public realizes. Back in 2015 the German truck manufacturer Daimler Freightliner Trucks built a self-driving 18-wheeler that was extensively tested by the State of Nevada and deemed safe enough that it has been licensed for use on public highways (albeit with the stipulation that a human being be at least sitting in the driver’s seat). And in Oct. 2016 Uber teamed up with Budweiser to automate a tractor trailer which made a 120-mile “beer run” in Colorado, although with a human driver in the vehicle though he was not in the driver’s seat. On the EV side, I was recently reading in the New York Times that Tesla has announced that they will begin building an electric powered long-haul tractor trailer with a range of 500 miles on a single battery charge. Walmart has preordered 15, and J. B. Hunt has reserved “multiple” units of these electric semis. If Tesla is to be believed, these new vehicles could possibly save a company at least $25,000 a year in operating costs. There was no mention that there will be a self-driving capability included in these big rigs.
A Way Forward
I wonder if the way that society gets past its reservations about autonomous vehicles while simultaneously giving engineers in this field some real world experience to improve their equipment and software is if the EV technology combines with self-driving trucks so they can each reinforce the other.
What I can envision is that large trucking companies with many terminals scattered over large areas of this country and extensive land-based Supply Chains (like J. B. Hunt, Roadway, or United Parcel Service) would purchase fully autonomous electric vehicles which are then used to move freight between terminals over the existing Interstate highway system. From the self-driving side of this scenario, since they are limited access the interstate expressways would not present nearly as challenging an environment as local driving. Their lane configurations are well known ahead of time: you could almost program a truck to stay in specific lanes for particular sections of road and then change to some other lane for certain other sectors. The rig would then arrive at one of the company’s terminals where its cargo would be switched onto manned trucks and driven over local or city streets for delivery to the final destinations. And when the rig is loading/unloading, company employees could swap out the battery pack so that the vehicle can simply continue on when ready and not experience any downtime while its battery recharges. The fact that these vehicles would be unmanned would mean that their operating costs would be that much cheaper than Tesla’s estimate. And by using their own locations to swap out battery packs, the trucking companies would lower the costs of their Supply Chains still further.
As people get more familiar with seeing these big rigs on the highways, their comfort levels with these trucks would rise and social barriers to the more widespread introduction of self-driving vehicles will fall. And since they will be operating in the ‘real-world’, the wide variety of situations that these trucks would encounter will be invaluable to equipment and software engineers to perfect their products. As anybody who has done software development can attest, you can plan and anticipate all of the scenarios you want during the development phase it’s not until the program actually gets into the real-world where a user can get their hands on it that you then find the subtle bugs and weaknesses in your work.
From the EV side of the equation, since these vehicles will make economic sense, car and truck manufacturers will be incentivized to further develop this technology. Also, as they become more prevalent, supporting sectors of the economy will develop to provide the necessary standardization and infrastructure for efficient EVs. For example, maybe service stations on major roads will begin to offer rapid recharging stations or fresh standardized battery packs for swap-out instead of fossil fuel to keep these future vehicles on the move.
By hitch-hiking on each other in this way, perhaps these two technologies can exploit the strengths of the other and thus move the economy and society further along into the future.