Picturing the Driverless Future - The Years Project

Picturing the Driverless Future

By Maggie Badore

Cars that can drive themselves are already on the road, with pilot projects of autonomous cars happening around the world. If you live in the U.S., you might have even driven past one without knowing it, because regulations still require someone to sit in the driver’s seat, as Ty Burrell learned in the Years of Living Dangerously story, “The Road Ahead.”

So, what will it look like when the day arrives that everyone sits in a passenger’s seat? Working with Dr. Jeffery Greenblatt, the Years team commissioned a series of animations that envision a fully autonomous future. Greenblatt researches how emerging technologies, like autonomous vehicles, can lower greenhouse gas pollution at the Lawerence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“We didn’t realize that autonomous vehicles had the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions,” says Jonathan Schienberg, a Years Producer/Director who worked on the episode. “These animations were created to illustrate Jeff’s groundbreaking research, and to help Ty and our audience visualize that.”

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of self-driving cars is that passengers can do other things while getting from place to place. But safety is another important advantage. Greenblatt explains that driverless cars are already proving to be safer than human drivers, because the computers don’t get tired or distracted.

The first animation combines an illustration of relaxed passengers with the concept of seamless traffic flow—no traffic lights, no stop signs.

A Driverless Future from YEARS of LIVING DANGEROUSLY on Vimeo.

“The advantage of seamless traffic flow obviously is that cars can get where they need to go faster,” says Greenblatt. “And you save energy because you’re not waiting at intersections, and so it’s an important part of the benefit of automation.”

Similarly, autonomous cars could communicate with each other—not only to navigate intersections and avoid crashes, but also re-routing vehicles to avoid congestion. Using lidar, a laser-based detection system, the cars can also identify other types of objects in the environment.

Another benefit of having vehicles communicate with each other is called platooning, as seen in the animation below. Greenblatt explains that allowing some vehicles to tail each other very closely can result in an energy savings as high as 20 percent, by decreasing the air resistance for vehicles behind the leader.

Ride-sharing services are already on the rise, and will likely be part of an autonomous future. People could still use their phones to call a car—you just wouldn’t need a driver to deliver it. And just like today’s ride sharing services, users don’t need to worry about parking or the responsibilities of owning the vehicle, like insurance, maintenance or upkeep. If fewer people own cars, we could reduce the amount of space needed for parking and even dramatically reduce the total number of vehicles that need to exist.

You’ll also notice in the animation above that prior to being dispatched, the ride share fleet is at a solar charging station. This is an important detail–because we can only stop devastating levels of climate change if we switch to electric cars powered by renewable energy.

“Even an internal combustion engine vehicle will be more fuel efficient when driven autonomously,” says Greenblatt. “But the really big advantage comes by switching to electricity.”

Electric vehicles could also have the potential to charge themselves, as envisioned below with a charging pad installed at a city intersection. The technology could use magnetic coupling through the ground to the bottom of the car. This kind of technology is already commercially available for charging devices like cell phones, so making the leap to the roadway might not be that far off.

It might become more widespread in the future because of the convenience of not having to physically plug the car in says Greenblatt. “If you have a car that doesn’t have a human in it, then it’s a more convenient way to recharge autonomously.”

But without clean sources of energy, driverless technologies likely won’t reduce pollution from the transportation sector enough to slow climate change. That’s partly because autonomous technologies will likely increase the number of car trips made per day, as they give access to people who currently can’t drive. More miles driven on fossil fuels means higher emissions and more pollution. The final animation pictures a world where autonomous vehicles still burn dirty forms of energy, and where the majority of cars aren’t part of shared fleets.

But Greenblatt is optimistic that this dystopia won’t be our future. Thanks to the economics of clean energy and car sharing, individual ownership and internal combustion engines likely won’t be able to compete with the clean fleet vehicles of the future. He points to companies like Tesla and Google investing dually in autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles. “They see a potential for not just doing well themselves, but also passing those savings on to the world.”


All animations created by Steelhead.