World-changing technologies are literally just that – they can alter the entire fabric of our lives. So, when new technology is developed, it pays to think through the long-term consequences, whether they are positive or negative.
The ‘internet’ is an excellent case study – today more people have access to more information than at any other time in human history. It has changed the way we relate to the world and has educated people in more ways than one. But it has also made people more susceptible to intellectual isolation as they seek for only those opinions with which they already agree.
Self-driving cars present a scenario of a similar wide scope. To start, the benefits they bring will be enormous. In the US alone, it is estimated that the automotive industry will save the following in a year:
- 30,000 lives.
- $543 billion in medical expenses.
- $160 billion in time and gas.
- 157 hours per person in commute time.
That is a whole lot of savings, right? There are of course still some challenges to be resolved, such as, what will happen to people who rely on driving as a source of income — a huge sociological issue that will have to be resolved over the next decade. A more ambiguous outcome is the environmental impact of self-driving cars. While most experts agree that autonomous cars will be hugely beneficial, some argue that we will also see unintended negative consequences.
The very technology that makes self-driving cars possible, also allows us to continuously improve their impact. For OEMs concerned with making their cars as green as possible, adopting OTA technology will not only keep their vehicles connected and up-to-date, it will also ensure that the environmental benefits of autonomous driving keep accumulating.
The Positive Environmental Impact of Self-Driving Cars
The initial rise of the automobile had unintended negative consequences on the environment. But automakers have done an impressive job of adapting to eco-friendly designs after learning more about the impact of emissions and fossil fuels. Self-driving cars can be the next step in that progression.
Today, we already have zero-emission cars on the road from Mercedes and Nissan. Toyota has taken the next step with its latest model, Mirai, that runs on hydrogen and emits water instead of harmful greenhouse gases.
There are a number of reasons why the autonomous car is so beneficial to the environment. These include:
- Better driving efficiency: Think about someone who is driving in an unfamiliar city and gets lost. They will back up, drive down the wrong streets, or circle repeatedly through the same neighborhood as they try to find their bearings. It is such a waste of fuel. Smart cars, which will always take the correct path, will not have that problem.
- Congestion reduction: It is estimated that in 2011, congestion “caused urban Americans to travel 5.5 billion hours more and to purchase an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, acquiring a congestion cost of $121 billion.” A system of connected cars will be able to avoid this, as every car will work in tune with the other vehicles. Think of how frustrating it is when human drivers wait until the last second to merge, slowing down traffic in the process — this would become a non-existent issue.
- Better platooning: When cars drive very closely behind one another, aerodynamic drag is reduced. This can result in fuel savings of up to 20-60%. Of course, it is dangerous for humans to drive this way, but it is not the same with autonomous cars. Tighter formations can dramatically reduce gas usage.
- Less braking, less acceleration: Drivers will no longer veer around each other. They will not need to slam on the brakes or be required to put the pedal to the metal. All the little inefficiencies that add up to huge losses will be mitigated or eliminated.
Overall, the Department of Energy believes that self-driving cars could reduce energy consumption by as much as 90%.
Or, they could increase energy consumption by as much as 20%.
Potential Negatives and the Need for OTA Technology
What accounts for such a wide range of possible outcomes? The variance essentially stems from social choices. To start, self-driving cars will alter customers’ productivity by allowing them to work during the commute. Even if they do not work, they can relax, check their phones, watch TV, read books, and so on. While this is great, it also means that a long commute is less burdensome. People who have flocked to urban areas to avoid long drive times might return to the suburbs, where they will be once again dependent on cars.
Because of this, the total miles driven in any given year might actually go up. Even people who never wanted to buy a car, and who have always gotten by without one, might start using the fleet system more. These developments are good from a business perspective, of course, and perhaps even from a sociological perspective, but not necessarily from an environmental one. Then, too, the cars themselves might grow heavier, equipped with bigger TVs or even with beds. This extra weight could reduce the driving efficiency. Heavier safety equipment might eventually be removed, once it is no longer needed, but it would probably be many years before everyone is comfortable with that.
At this junction between positive consequences and unintended negative ones, Over-The-Air (OTA) software updating platforms can play a vital role. As technology improves, cars with pre-installed hardware can receive software updates that would allow better fuel efficiency in certain scenarios, whether it is a cross-country road trip or a drive through downtown Manhattan. These aftermarket upgrades promise to mitigate the increase in fuel consumption when people start driving more.
While early adopters might choose to purchase enhancements, non-optional updates can also be delivered in the same way, as fuel efficiency continues to improve. OTA software updates ensure that all the cars on the road — and not just the latest models — keep pace with new developments. When small improvements in fuel efficiency go into effect on such a large scale, the results are likely to be impressive.
There is also no doubt that these improvements are already underway. Think back to the 1970s, during the panic of the gas crisis and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo, when automotive OEMs began to make lighter cars, with an emphasis on fuel efficiency rather than on power and speed. While there is no way to make cars physically lighter over-the-air, the sort of aftermarket engine upgrades that we are now capable of would have possibly stunned the industry in the 1970s. In other words, automotive leaders have a long history of continuously outdoing themselves to meet new challenges.
OTA technology allows OEMs to react to external problems very quickly. If, for example, we discover new ways to formulate fuel in the future — whether it is petroleum-based or some as-yet-unknown alternative — engines will be able to adapt to it instantly and efficiently.
We do not know exactly what the future will bring for self-driving cars, but we know that OEMs will continue to do what they have always done, improving every process and discovering new ways to make cars cleaner, greener, and better for both drivers and for the environment at large. Together, we can work to make this disruptive technology an asset to the environment and also to people.
As the auto industry is changed by technological and economic currents, OEMs and Tier-1 manufacturers will need to partner with technological specialists to thrive in the era of the software defined car. Movimento’s expertise is rooted in our background as an automotive company. This has allowed us to create the technological platform that underpins the future of the software driven and self-driven car. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can work together.