Weekly Brief: Volvo’s driverless vision more delusion than dream

If you think city traffic is bad today, imagine what it will be like 30 years from now, writes Andrew Tolve.

India is in the midst of the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history. By 2050, Mumbai is projected to have 42M residents. Delhi is expected to clock in at 36M. Those are staggering statistics, as is the fact that 14 cities are projected to have more than 20M residents, New York, Tokyo, Cairo and Mexico City included. Try and find street parking in that scenario.

This is what’s so surprising about Volvo’s 360c self-driving concept car, which it unveiled last week in Gothenburg. The car is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and makes the future of autonomous transport look a lot more sexy and luxurious than a box with sensors on the roof like a Waymo Chrysler minivan. The 360c replaces clunky sensors with a sleek cluster of LiDAR in the nose of the vehicle. An equally sleek 360-degree LED band wraps around the vehicle, lighting up in different ways to communicate with pedestrians and to facilitate ridesharing. Most carmakers are now thinking about how self-driving cars can better communicate with people in the future. Volvo’s 360c solution is more elegant than the pair of googly eyes that Jaguar is experimenting with.

So that’s all good, and yet, Volvo led its press release of its concept car with this provocative question: “Why fly when you can be driven?” It followed that up with a bold argument for self-driving cars replacing the short-haul flight industry. Need to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Why deal with the hassle of the airport and the cramp of an airplane, Volvo suggests, when you can sleep in your own private car (the 360c comes with a fold-out bed) and watch Netflix on your personal jumbo screen (it comes with that too), all while your vehicle ushers you door-to-door from one major city to the next?

It’s true, as Volvo points out, that airplanes are not an eco-friendly mode of transportation but the notion that what we need to do today or in the near future is replace a form of shared mobility with individual cars, thereby making cities more congested, not less, is patently absurd – even if those cars are all-electric as the 360c happens to be. Trains are a more responsible mode of transportation to encourage. The infrastructure already exists. They have a light carbon footprint and where one person can fit into a 360c, that same space accommodates 25 people in a high-speed train.

If we insist on automobiles, how about self-driving shuttles or, better yet, buses as big as the semi-autonomous Mercedes truck that Mercedes Benz Trucks debuted last week. Make it all-electric and so luxurious that it feels superior to first-class travel in a 747.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the vast majority of people living in cities commuted via public transportation. The automotive revolution changed that, with negative consequences for the environment and a huge spike in deaths on the road each year. That’s simply not sustainable in the future, as we move into a world dominated by over-population and resource scarcity. Hence, the appeal of the shared mobility revolution, where individual car ownership dwindles and in its place we use a blend of ride-sharing, bike-sharing, scooter-sharing, public transportation, drone deliveries and car-sharing when we need a car to get out of town. Now there’s a concept.


2 comments

  1. Laurence Dunn 10th September 2018 @ 6:45 pm

    I 100% agree with Andrews comments about the shared transport environment. We need to be focusing our resources upon this mode of transportation and realize that the day of individual transport ownership is going to fast disappear. Getting us out of our status symbols will require a major mind shift, so we need to be training our up and coming citizens/ engineers to think about social responsibility in order that we can all enjoy the good life, and that owning a car is not a rite of passage.

  2. Graham Ellis 10th September 2018 @ 6:50 pm

    I agree that efficient and cheap public transport is the way forward. However, you need to invest in this. London has only just started to catch-up on outstanding maintenance on its infrastructure and rolling stock and even that investment is being further delayed.
    The New York metro system is a basket case, the City and State both arguing over who should fund its desperately needed renewal while the system fails on a daily basis. The train network also needs investment, Amtrak is expensive and inefficient compared to flying. I could go on about other systems around the world but that would need several articles to be written.

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