Driverless cars and the return to automotive progress

By David Van Rensburg | July 9, 2018

As a species, we humans are naturally progress-hungry. We constantly seek to enhance, improve, and better our surroundings, whether it’s growing and cultivating the food we eat or simplifying the way we communicate with one another.

Over the past century, nearly every aspect of human life has been updated to the point where it has become unrecognizable from its original form. However, the one noticeable exception to this rule is the car. In 1908 when Ford introduced the Model T, the car became the pinnacle of transportation, making horses all but obsolete as a means of getting from Point A to Point B.

Since the introduction of the car, predictions about its future have abounded. From the tame to the outlandish, people have dreamt up what the next step would be. As early as 1917, Glenn Curtiss began testing a prototype for a flying car, and in 1902, six years before the unveiling of the Model T, Thomas Edison predicted that gasoline was on its way out and that electric cars would soon take over from their gas-powered counterparts.

In 1974, middle schoolers in Ohio prophesized that by the year 2000, we would be driving cars that float on air or are powered entirely by solar energy.

Yet, in the 110 years that have followed the unveiling of the Model T, the car has remained relatively unchanged. Today’s cars still feature an engine (gasoline in most cases), four wheels, and most importantly a driver. While other technologies like the telephone have undergone drastic changes—transitioning from a wall-mounted kitchen staple to a mobile device that can access all of humanity’s knowledge—the car has yet to undergo any fundamental changes to its makeup. But, over a century after it was first introduced, the car is on the cusp of making its first major transformation: ditching the driver.

There has been no shortage of coverage around autonomous vehicles of late. With many of the world’s leading tech companies jockeying to be the standout in this sphere, there have been tragic consequences in the race to become the leader in this technology. These recent incidents have made it clear that much like the transition from horses to cars, the transition from human-operated vehicles to autonomous vehicles will not be seamless.

As automated vehicles start becoming more of a normal occurrence on roads and highways, the societal and logistical implications of this technology become more apparent. Extensive research and testing has been done in Florida, for example, and the potential implications are vast. Researchers found that the widespread advent of driverless cars may have significant impacts on the structure and layout of major cities. When (and not if) driverless cars become the majority of vehicle traffic and all cars constantly share information with one another, the roads will be far safer and cars will need far less buffer between them to travel safely to their destinations.

It will become possible to redesign roadways to make narrower lanes, allowing for more vehicles on the road at once. Automated vehicles will also free-up useful real estate space by eliminating the need for downtown parking lots. Autonomous car owners will be able to have their cars drop them off downtown, and then return either to the owner’s home or to a parking facility outside the city center, opening up more real estate that was previously used for parking lots and structures.

These vehicles also have cost-saving applications for businesses, particularly regarding automobile shipping and ports. This presents a great opportunity for many of our clients, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Currently, when cars that have been shipped from overseas arrive at the port, numerous human drivers are needed to drive the cars to a large lot located on the port’s limited property. With the advent of driverless cars, not only will the human drivers become unnecessary, but the cars could drive themselves to a different location away from the port itself, such as a parking lot in a less populated area. This could open more space for port operations or allow the port to sell off that high-priced land the parking lot was located on for an even-greater cost saving.

As designers and innovators in infrastructure, Hatch has already begun designing and preparing for the impact that driverless cars will have. The consequences of autonomous vehicles are vast and will affect every aspect of human life, and we are ready for what this next stage of human progress will bring.