Driving into a clean future

More than any other technology, autonomously driving vehicles will transform our society and the environment. An interview with Thomas Palme from the Boston Consulting Group.

In the future, automobiles will liberate themselves from domination by human beings and roll through the streets autonomously. The Boston Consulting Group has conducted a study of the effects of this new technology. Thomas Palme, the consulting firm’s Principal, describes the effects of autonomous mobility.

When will automobiles start to drive independently of drivers?

Thomas Palme: It will take us a very long time to reach Level Five, which denotes completely autonomous driving. We’re talking about the period beginning about 2030. Before that, we’ll reach Levels Three and Four. At Level Four, cars will already be able to drive autonomously in clearly defined zones or areas of application — for example, in a clearly demarcated city district or on a limited section of a highway. That’s already enough to trigger many of the revolutionary changes that we hope autonomous driving will bring. In the years after 2025, this technology will be launched on the market on a bigger scale. But according to what we’ve heard from the automakers, the first pilot vehicles will appear much earlier. They will probably be initially offered as services, such as autonomously driving taxis.

Will the introduction of autonomously driving vehicles be accompanied by electric mobility?

We don’t see any technical reasons why autonomously driving vehicles shouldn’t be equipped with conventional drive systems. Autonomous driving works with both kinds of drive system. But when we survey our customers, we find that they always associate autonomous driving with electric mobility. And when people talk about autonomous driving, the perspective quickly expands to include mobility services such as self-driving taxis. In this connection, electric cars have clear advantages. They cause lower costs per kilometer than cars with a combustion engine, so they are more cost-effective for the operators if we assume similar mileages. Nonetheless, we will continue to offer hybrids, plug-ins, and combustion engines, especially for private customers.

When people talk about autonomous driving, the perspective quickly expands to include mobility services such as self-driving taxis. In this connection, electric cars have clear advantages.

Where will we see the biggest advantages of the new mobility? In urban traffic or long-distance driving?

Thomas Palme, Pricipal at the Boston Consulting Group

There are projects in both of these areas that are constantly being refined and that many automakers are working on — for example, the Highway Pilot. The relatively simple structure of highways, without any traffic signals or intersections, is favorable for this technology. Meanwhile, many companies are working to develop solutions for fully automated driverless mobility in urban environments. These vehicles will include even more technology and thus will be more expensive. In the future, they could replace car sharing and ride-hailing if they operate without drivers.

In that case, in the future people will have a model for long-distance driving and will also depend on autonomously driving vehicles to fulfill their urban mobility needs.

That depends on where an individual lives. People who live and work in a city might not need a car during the working week. At most, they might treat themselves to a car of their own for an outing over the weekend. The scenario I like for urban mobility offers a wide variety of options for individual mobility, ranging from private cars to self-driving taxis, minibusses, pods, carpooling, and local public transportation.

For example, will we be able to convert the parking lots that are no longer needed into open spaces?

What effects will autonomous mobility have on urban planning?

That raises some interesting questions. For example, will we then be able to convert the parking lots that are no longer needed into open spaces? How we use the areas that are freed up by autonomous traffic depends on the individual cities. In New York, for example, they could build more office or residential buildings. In Singapore, the planners are thinking about adding additional green spaces. In any case, urban planners will be challenged to think about these issues. When we talk to city authorities, we find that they are primarily hoping to solve the so-called “last mile problem.” Autonomous vehicles that pick people up at home and take them to the stations of the local public transportation system would create a blend of public and private transportation. But in order to make this possible, the stations will have to be designed appropriately. Urban planners in many cities all over the world are already thinking in this direction.

And how will the areas of traffic safety and the environment be affected?

Here too, we can expect to see positive effects. For one thing, we calculate that the electrification and more resource-conserving operation of the autonomous models will reduce local emissions. At the same time, we can expect that traffic safety will benefit from these vehicles’ smoother and more anticipatory operation. In our Boston study, we assume that the number of accidents will be reduced by 87 percent over a period of ten years. And in terms of the environmental burden, emissions will be reduced by 66 percent.

We can expect that traffic safety will benefit from these vehicles’ smoother and more anticipatory operation. In our study, we assume that the number of accidents will be reduced by 87 percent over a period of ten years. And in terms of the environmental burden, emissions will be reduced by 66 percent.

What kind of impact will autonomous driving have on society?

The new technology can open up access to areas that were previously not adequately served by local public transportation systems because of the costs involved. That applies especially to cities in the USA, where it can connect neighborhoods that are occupied mainly by minorities and socially disadvantaged groups and have so far lacked an adequate connection with local public transportation systems. The people who live there can’t afford to take taxis, and there are no subway connections. Autonomous technology eliminates the huge cost factor of personnel. As a result, these areas can be linked with local public transportation systems and these groups can regain access to mainstream society. For example, the people who live there could take on new jobs in other parts of the city or switch to a different school. On the other hand, there will also be some losers if bus drivers and taxi drivers are no longer as necessary as they are today. Managing this transitional period in a reasonable way will be a task for the policymakers.

What problems will we have during this transitional period, when many conventional vehicles are still on the road? Will there eventually be driving bans for conventional cars?

That’s not a very realistic scenario for the foreseeable future — at least in the Western industrialized nations. We can imagine that happening only in special cases when a new city district is being built in which only pedestrians and autonomous vehicles are permitted to move around. That applies primarily to Asia and the Middle East, where completely new cities are being planned. In any case, because of the coexistence of conventional and autonomous technology, the systems of the autonomous vehicles will have to be much more complex. That will, of course, make them more expensive and further delay their market launch. The problem has not yet been finally solved — but it can be solved

There’s no doubt that autonomous driving is a highly challenging technological achievement. Fortunately, thanks to the use of deep learning and self-learning systems, the developers are making rapid progress in this area.

The developers have some challenging tasks ahead of them.

There’s no doubt that autonomous driving is a highly challenging technological achievement. Fortunately, thanks to the use of deep learning and self-learning systems, developers are making rapid progress in this area.

In what areas will autonomous driving be successfully implemented soonest?

The companies are being very secretive about this topic, and rightly so. In addition to technological maturity, autonomous driving will also depend on local traffic conditions and the regulatory systems. At the moment we’re not seeing any clear leaders. China does not have a technological advantage in this area today. In Europe, it’s primarily the automakers and their suppliers who are working on this technology. In the USA, technology and automobile companies, as well as many startups, are working in this area — this is where the first pilot vehicles for autonomous driving as a service concept will probably be launched sooner than in other countries. But the crucial question will be whether regulatory interventions will be implemented to help autonomous driving achieve a faster breakthrough.

 

The Boston Consulting Group is one of the biggest corporate consulting firms in the world. In 2016, it used the North American metropolis of Boston as an example to study the effects of autonomous mobility. After the city government had passed a corresponding set of regulations, autonomous vehicles were tested in Boston as part of the study. The study revealed that the number of accidents and exhaust emissions could be significantly decreased through the use of autonomous vehicles. In addition, it would become possible to open up additional public spaces, and there would be less congestion impeding the flow of traffic. This would ultimately lead to employees’ higher productivity because they’d have to spend less time driving to and from work. The study was published in October 2017.

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