Future transportation could include bullet trains, supersonic air travel or even flying cars, but Gulu Gambhir, vice president, CTO of Northrop Grumman Technology Services, believes the biggest change is already underway: automation for vehicles.
Self-driving cars, a.k.a. autonomous vehicles, are essentially robots that transport passengers. They are revolutionizing commuting — a huge part of life as a working professional.
Transportation Technology Needs an Upgrade
As transportation technology continues to progress, cities could upgrade public transit systems to modern versions that rely on electric vehicles, integrate ride-sharing services like Uber, or even some combination of subway systems, autonomous vehicles and smart infrastructure.
Harvard Business Review estimates that by embracing innovative mobility technology by 2030, densely populated cities in developing economies could save $600 million annually, and advanced cities could save $2.5 billion per year.
With these compelling figures, it seems that we are on the verge of a revolution in transportation technology. Ride-sharing apps have already disrupted rental cars and the taxi industry. “For the first time, more people are using Uber in New York than the city’s fabled yellow cab,” reported The New York Times.
Automation Is Inevitable
New cars are equipped with automated features such as autopilot for highway driving, and several cars with full automation — no driver needed — are being tested in the United States and around the world. Perhaps in the near future, we won’t have to choose between investing in an expensive car and fighting traffic, or being restricted to a crowded train’s schedule to get to work each day. Instead, a whole new model for transportation could emerge.
We typically use our cars for commuting to work, and then they sit idly in a parking spot all day. “For most of us, the duty cycle that our cars use is pretty modest, less than 10 percent of the time on an annual basis,” said Gambhir.
Integrating Systems Thinking and Transportation
Gambhir envisions future transportation models where you can summon a car on demand that is personalized and reliable. If you don’t need a driver, he says, you don’t even need a seat for the driver. Instead of a limousine with a passenger compartment in the back, a car could have a handful of individual compartments for riders. It would be similar to taking a bus, but in a more comfortable and customized way.
“The vehicle could pick you up at your home and you could get into a compartment that’s only yours, and have this personalized, almost limo-like experience,” he said. The car might stop and pick up other passengers along the way, but automated routes would still save time overall, and you would be spending your commute in comfort.
At Northrop Grumman, Gambhir’s team focuses on systems thinking, which means thinking about not just the initial implications of a change of a system or a process, but also the second order and third order changes that will follow.
Applying systems thinking to future transportation, he wondered, “What are the implications for vehicle design in this model where you don’t have a driver and you don’t even want to own the asset but you still want that kind of personalized experience?”
He suggested that in the future, instead of owning cars, people could have their own passenger compartments that a vehicle could pick up and transport to the destination. This change would have widespread effects.
Will Roads Be Safer?
According to the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of serious crashes are due to human error, and an estimated 35,092 people died in motor vehicle-related crashes in the U.S. in 2015. If self-driving cars can eliminate human error, they could save tens of thousands of lives each year.
“If the algorithms are better than people and won’t make those human mistakes, and in general they make fewer mistakes, what are the implications of that?” Gambhir mused. “Car insurance as we know it today should fundamentally change. With reduced accidents, there may be fewer body shops in the future,” he added.
Many of the familiar features of today’s infrastructure could become obsolete.
Road to the Future
In a future where commuters subscribe to car services instead of owning cars, we won’t need nearly as many parking garages or parking spots on the street, and that space could be used for other purposes. Street lights, for example, would be useless and replaced with sensors.
“In the future, if we’re really talking about an autonomous system, a car isn’t going to need to read a street sign or a speed limit sign … If it has a good up-to-date database of the roadways, it will know how to go from point A to B optimally and safely,” Gambhir said.