Looking ahead to 2050 - Autonomous vehicles II

In 2015 Uber set up and Advanced Technology Center, ATC, in Pittsburgh and in September 2016 the ATC demonstrated the first Uber self driving car. Credit: Uber

The size of ships’ crews has been decreasing for centuries, and soon some large vessels may sail without anyone on board. Ships designed to be controlled remotely or to navigate themselves will look distinctly different from today’s ships. Credits: IEEE Spectrum; photo: Rolls Royce

It is likely that autonomous vehicles will first succeed in the commercial vehicle arena. Aircrafts are already "almost" autonomous vehicles under the pressure of decreasing fuel consumption and increasing safety. Trucks platoons are also being pursued to decrease fuel consumption (less drag) and cost of drivers. Uber is interested in self driving cars also for economic reasons.  Even ships are expected to become "self-sailing" in the next decade.

This is starting to happen in this decade and it is likely to pick up steam in the next one.  We are also likely to see some car-share fleet in a few “smart cities” becoming autonomous in the next decade.

Another area that seems accelerating towards autonomous vehicles is the distribution of goods. News on “plans” to distribute parcels and small boxes using drones have been making headlines in the last two years with Amazon delivering its first package in December 2016 (see clip).

In reality, today, there are significant hurdles both from a regulatory (responsibility, insurance, …) and economic standpoints.

Delivery of packages has to be efficient and affordable, both to the sender and the receiver. A drone can carry just one package and makes a single delivery then it has to fly back; a UPS van usually delivers hundreds of packages in a day making 120 deliveries (on average). The economics is simply not working out.

Yes, there may be a few specific deliveries where speed is so important that the value and justification is there but this does not apply to the vast majority of the delivery chain. Hence, imagining that in the future vans may be replaced by drones looks unrealistic. But of course, vans can and will be replaced by autonomous vans!

Smart cities will progressively be reshaped by the presence of autonomous vehicles. No longer need for red lights at crossings since the vehicles will coordinate with one another the safe slot for crossing, no more one way streets predetermined, since traffic will flow through a dynamically reassigned set of lanes.

Also in industrial environments we are seeing autonomous "moving" robots that can be considered kinds of autonomous vehicles (i.e. roaming warehouses to pick up components/boxes). The industry 4.0 will make extensive use of autonomous interacting robots.

The whole areas of industry and logistics will be reshaped by autonomous vehicles and the world we have today will be difficult to understand by kids that will grow up in the sixth decade of this century.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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