Autonomous cars and man’s future: The road ahead

With autonomous, self-driving cars likely to be commonplace by around 2025, these vehicles will change our roads, our relationship with our cars and society at large. Buckle up, a revolution is coming!

It’s no dramatic hyperbole to suggest that the automotive industry is destined to change more in the next 20 years than it has in the last 100. For a century, cars have consisted of a reasonably simple combination of four wheels, engine, steering system and pilot. Human and mechanics.

But the introduction of GPS technology alongside infrared and radar scanning, high definition cameras and, most importantly, the processing tech to stitch it all together has resulted in a truly disruptive game changer: the autonomous car.

mercedes-driverless-1Google, for instance, has chalked up over 700,000 autonomous miles in their (totally coincidentally) smiley faced, unthreatening driverless car, and this January Audi made a big fuss about driving the 569 miles from San Francisco to this year’s CES tech show in Las Vegas in an autonomous A7.

Volvo are running a scheme where 100 new owners will drive 50km of roads around Gothenburg autonomously in their new XC90s. Every automotive company right now is planning for the inevitable, in various stages of urgency.

The consensus – and there really is more heat generated around this issue than light – is that 2025 will most likely be when autonomous vehicles reach critical mass, sharing the road with human piloted vehicles.

However, as the most highly regulated industry on the planet, it won’t be the automobile manufacturers who will dictate the schedule, or even consumers, but the world’s governments. And right now they are in no hurry to direct resources into figuring out new driving laws.

Or the mind-boggling cost of overhauling our entire road system, traffic management and signposting. Or insurance regulations. Or driving tests. Or road tax. Or liability issues. Or…

Unexpected dangers of a driverless world

But suppose, for a minute, we live in a world of 100% fully automated cars, where human involvement is defunct. What will this world look like?

It won’t be the automobile manufacturers who will dictate the schedule, or even consumers, but the world’s governments

Well, first and foremost, it’s a much safer place to be. Road death is the eighth leading cause of death on the planet, with between 90% and 95% of car accidents the fault of human error. The economic cost of road accidents is estimated to be around $277bn in 2013.

So let’s do some fag packet maths, looking, logically at an industrialised western country like the UK. In 2013 there were 1,713 reported road traffic fatalities in the UK – the lowest since records began. (See! Cars are getting safer.) So allowing for the 5% of non-human error fatalities, that’s 1,627 fewer deaths on the road and virtually no injuries caused by accidents. Which is nothing short of terrific.

Great, right? Well, not if you’re a transplant ward in a hospital, and you rely on car accidents for your organs.

In Boston, for instance, 33 of their 267 organ donors were the result of car accidents. And if that still seems low, there were 105 organs harvested for transplant from those, amazingly generous people.

But where there’s tragedy, there’s opportunity. Indeed, Bre Pettis, founder and CEO of the 3D printing company Makerbot told Fortune that the process of 3D printing organs will have to come of age as a direct result of this shortfall in organ donations.

“We have this huge problem that we sort of don’t talk about, that people die all the time from car accidents,” says Pettis. “It’s kind of insane. But the most interesting thing is, if we can reduce accidents and deaths, then we actually have a whole other problem on our hands of, ‘Where do we get organs?’ I don’t think we’ll actually be printing organs until we solve the self-driving car issue.”

Designing the driverless city

City design will change enormously, even just in the short term. With great swathes of city real estate covered in car parks, self parking cars can cut down on that dramatically.

Without pesky humans parking selfishly, they can ease themselves into tiny spaces with just centimetres to spare. This frees up an enormous swathe of real estate that could be dug up and turned into parks, public spaces and real estate. Okay, mostly real estate.

That’s if cars need to be parked at all. The existence of car parks is based on the assumption that people own cars, or that cars will still remain parked for the current 95% of their lives that they lie dormant, as is the current situation.

Without pesky humans parking selfishly, they can ease themselves into tiny spaces with just centimetres to spare

Speeding fines? Thing of the past. Parking fines? Gone. Going through red lights? Well, there’ll be no need for traffic lights, signs or any other road based paraphernalia. Cars will all be interlinked on a terrifying global network, passing safety and orderly at junctions in an “After you. No, after you”-dance of software-driven politeness. This, of course, means none of that revenue going into the gaping maw of local council coffers.

“Great! Bugger them!” You say. Well, no. A huge amount of this revenue is invested into transport infrastructure and road maintenance. That revenue will have to be levied somewhere and somehow. See also fuel duty and car tax, also on the route of the dodo.

An RAC report estimated that in calendar year 2012, £24.78bn was raised in Fuel Duty and £5.87bn in VED (Vehicle Excise Duty, otherwise known as car tax) in the UK.

This totaled £30.65bn ($47.51bn), which will have to be recouped somewhere. We want to use the roads. They have to be paid for.

Fuel savings will be immense. Autonomous cars drive consistently and economically, without man’s strange insistence of moving one, righteous, car up the queue by overtaking, and aggressively lane-changing.

Morgan Stanley projected autonomous cars could save the US $170bn in lower fuel costs, and another $138bn in congestion avoidance. And that’s just fossil fuels. Which could also be a thing of the past.

Rise of the renewable car

A glance at one of the most disruptive entrepreneurs on the planet – Elon Musk – provides an indication of the future of automobile power, and it’s clean and renewable.

With the release of Tesla’s home battery, linked to a solar charger, his vision is to power cars, free and cleanly, via solar power stored in a highly capacity battery in your home.

And that’s just scratching the surface of electric power. Another option to charge your car is wireless induction charging – a primary coil is ferreted away in your garage floor, a secondary coil is incorporated into the floor of the car, and an alternating magnetic field charges the battery.

Eventually roads will be embedded with these chargers, with motorways actually juicing the car up as you use them.

Meanwhile, huge, flowery solar panel pavilions are being developed for cars, which unpack out of the boot, unfurl while they’re parked and juice them where they stand.

Another option is putting lights onto the roofs of cars which charge during the day and replace street lamps at night. What a concept!

Self-piloted cars will also be enormously empowering for sectors of society traditionally challenged by mobility issues. The disabled, old and blind, for instance, will be able to get anywhere, giving unprecedented freedom.

Drink-driving only exists while driving exists. And contrary to long-held beliefs of autonomous cars driving like nanas, with fewer accidents, and computer-making decisions limited only by physics and the decision-making speed of silicon, speed limits could be raised to what today would be considered insane heights.

Liability in the world of the self-driving car

The insurance industry is, as you’d imagine, watching developments with an arched eyebrow. And again, it’s not what you’d think.

Personal insurance will mostly likely become defunct, because as the car takes responsibility for safety, liability will shift to the manufacturers themselves, with the ABI – the Association of British Insurers telling Factor: “The key change – and the potential shift to product liability – comes when the driver is not expected to oversee or monitor the vehicle and when they have ceded full driving responsibility to the car itself.

The insurance industry is, as you’d imagine, watching developments with an arched eyebrow

“Our initial view is that if a system fails on a fully autonomous vehicle causing it to crash, liability would rest with the vehicle or system manufacturer. This potential shift in liability would only occur when a driver has actively given complete control to the vehicle and has no option to intervene.

“So whether or not there is a complete shift in liability from the driver to the vehicle is likely to depend on whether there is a clear option for the driver to intervene.”

But if we no longer buy cars, how can a manufacturer generate enough money to even cover this liability? Grey waters, indeed.

Driverless cars on the commute

Our interactions with cars will change forever. Do you commute? Well congestion will be eliminated.

Paul Godsmark, CAVCOE’s chief technology officer of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre Of Excellence told the Driverless Transportation website that just a step change in autonomous vehicle sharing from the current 1.2 people to 1.8, a 50% increase, would “remove most congestion from most cities. That’s the big win for autonomous vehicles.”

Those who still commute will claim back an average of 50 minutes a day in their cars. Where you’d be chewing the steering wheel or headbanging to Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio, now you can work, read, send emails, even work out.

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

With space in cars totally freed up – most design constraints like windscreens, safety pillars, number of doors etc. are based around a human driver – why wouldn’t you stick an exercise bike or a treadmill in your car? Good news for your waistband, not so much for drive-time DJs.

‘Sleeper cars’ will become available for long journeys where you’ll simply set off at night, tuck yourself into the incorporated bed, with blacked-out windows if there are windows at all, and wake up right outside your destination, be it Land’s End to John O’Groats, or a cross-Europe trip.

Automation driving job losses

Freight will be completely automated, putting every single lorry driver out of work. Deliveries will be automated, using the highways at night when there’s no congestion and economies of scale can be greater, without pesky regulations forcing weak-bodied professional drivers to take breaks.

If you drive for a living right now, can we politely suggest starting to look for a new vocation?

Pizza deliveries: automated. All deliveries: automated. If you drive for a living right now, can we politely suggest starting to look for a new vocation?

Indeed, individual car ownership with almost certainly wither and die. As autonomous cars become less an expression of your personality, bound by useage, design, handling and power and more an amorphous, vanilla everycar, there’ll be increasingly less reason to own one.

Even now, Millennials are far more interested in investing in the latest smartphone, tablet or wearable than anchoring themselves to five years’ more debt to purchase a car they rarely use, have little interest in and are taxed up the wazoo to keep.

We’ll change our entire relationship with the automobile, from something intensely personal into a commodity like a toothbrush or a saucepan.

Tim Dant, retired professor of sociology at Lancaster University told Factor: “The driverless car will change the intimate relationship that has developed during the 20th century between the user and their automobile.

“No longer will the embodied control over the device, the selection of route and manner of driving that makes it ‘mine’, be an expression of personality and identity. Instead it will be an autonomous machine that does the user’s bidding in its own systematised way.”

“Traffic congestion and ever-stricter controls over speed, parking and manoeuvring have already reduced the number of people who are excited about driving and the standardisation of design and functionality has reduced the consumer’s pleasure in choosing the right car for them,” Dant continues.

“What is more, in an increasingly privatised society the interaction between drivers on the road is a mode of ‘being in public’ that will disappear with the driverless car. It will of course make it much easier to ‘go by car’, but much more important will be the economic and social impact of the loss of skilled jobs – taxi drivers, bus drivers and lorry drivers for example – as business realises that a driverless vehicle can be operated at all hours with less risk and less cost.”

Privacy in the driverless world

Rather than own a vehicle, you’ll most likely whip out your smartphone and call an automated car, just like we would an Uber taxi today. Prod your destination into the app and off you’ll go, automatically billed at the end.

Sounds great, again? Hold up. This has severe implications to your freedom of information.

Planning to commit a crime? Don’t travel there or back in an autonomous car

With all cars packing GPS and your starting point, destination and current position all tied to an app, the provider of that app, and by association the government and police, can and will have a record of your position at every second of your journey.

Planning to commit a crime? Don’t travel there or back in an autonomous car.

The automobile changed the world, becoming a 20th century utopian ideal, delivering freedom and independence. Autonomous driving will turn the car into a commodity, a simple, smart, human-replacing means to an end, and our society is going to be feeling the impact for decades. Exciting times.

Humans on Mars in 8 years? From any other president it would be lunacy, but with Trump at the helm it just might work

Last month US President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that further focused NASA’s continuing goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. Laying out in detail the steps the agency will take to reach this goal, it was welcomed by those at NASA, who have been itching to visit the Red Planet as quickly as possible.

“We’re all very much looking forward, as directed by your new NASA bill, we’re excited about the missions to Mars in the 2030s,” the brilliant Commander Peggy Whitson, who yesterday broke the US cumulative space record, told Trump in a live streamed video call from the International Space Station. “We are absolutely ready to go to Mars. It’s going to be a fantastic journey getting up there and very exciting times. All of us would be happy to go.”

But yesterday during the conversation with Whitson, Trump made comments that suggest he’s hoping to move that target forward significantly. First, he asked the Commander how quickly she thought humans would get to Mars, to which she reiterated the 2030s goal and explained some of the challenges associated with getting to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour.

“Well we want to do it during my first term,” Trump then responded, to laughs from his daughter Ivanka, who also was in attendance, “or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

This, naturally, was jumped on by the left-wing press as the latest way to lambast Trump, but is it possible that it could be achievable?

Well, if we’re talking about first term – no, unfortunately not. NASA is still in the process of building its Space Launch System, the rocket that will be capable of manned missions to Mars, and the first test flight is not due until next year. There are also a huge number of issues that remain unresolved – not least that unless a solution to the vast amounts of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to is developed, there’s a good chance they could arrive at Mars with little clue about why they were there.

Add the fact that a flight to Mars would take between 150 and 300 days depending on planetary alignment and fuel usage, and a goal of just three years and nine months to arrive is simply not achievable.

Seven years and nine months – ie at the end of Trump’s second term – however is considerably more plausible, albeit still very ambitious. But Trump is nothing if not ambitious, and if he’s prepared to provide the support to make it happen, it really could be pulled off.

Mars by 2025?

If Trump were to formally move forward the Mars goal, he’d likely be looking at right at the end of his third term, so 2025. Conversely, his NASA bill has a tentative date of 2033: eight years later, meaning he’d effectively be halving the time left before humans landed on the Red Planet.

But there’s a lot to do. Only so much can be determined in low-Earth orbit – phase one of NASA’s work toward the Red Planet – and from next year NASA plans to embark on phase two of its Journey to Mars, using cis-Lunar space to test humans’ ability to live without reliance on Earth. That would have to be sped up – meaning more missions more quickly – in order to move to the third and final phase, and ultimately a manned trip to Mars.

NASA’s Journey to Mars. Image courtesy of NASA. Above: President Trump on call to Commander Peggy Whitson and NASA’s Jack Fischer. Image courtesy of NASA TV

However, even on the longer target of 2033, the mission is going to require vast funds and international support, as Whitson explained during her video stream.

“Unfortunately spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation to get it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful, just because it is a very expensive endeavour,” she said. “But it is so worthwhile doing.”

The funding, in particular, is going to be a serious challenge. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal sees NASA escaping the gouging cuts faced by many other departments, but it is set to lose 1% of its budget. However, its remit will be more tightly focused on the Mars mission, with education and Earth observation taking the damage.

But while that is relatively promising for fans of a manned Mars mission, if Trump is going to follow in John F Kennedy’s footsteps and make a short-term, big-goal space project a central morale booster, he’s going to have to follow Kennedy’s approach to funding the space agency. And that means adding far more money to NASA’s pot – potentially at least at the levels of Kennedy’s NASA, which would be equivalent to more than twice the current NASA budget.

In real terms, NASA’s current budget is slightly under half its peak during the run up to the Moon landing

For some the answer may lie in the commercial space industry, which is seeing dramatic growth, and is set to be dominated by US companies. And Trump’s NASA bill continues this support, showing there is certainly a strong business case to be had in transitioning low-Earth orbit activities to private companies. But while the commercial space industry is undoubtedly going to provide massive incomes in the future, in general it is not currently a profitable field, and so is unlikely to be a major source of financial gain for NASA within the time Trump would need.

Whatever you think of Trump, it’s clear that he’s a fan of space, and as part of the generation that watched the Moon landing live on black and white televisions, it’s no surprise. Now he’s at the helm, it seems he wants to ensure that next great moment in US space-faring is under his command. I probably would too if I were president.

But no matter how enthusiastic he is about the space agency and its plans, if he wants to make it happen, he’s going to need to put a lot more money behind NASA. Will alone will not speed up the journey to Mars, so if Trump is serious we should see a big uptick in the NASA budget next time around.

What’s left to get excited about with wearable technology? Find out in issue 35 of Factor magazine. Out now!

We think it’s fair to say wearable technology is not what it once was. Over the past year, multiple players have gone out of business, with Pebble, darlings of the smartwatch world, collapsing and being broken down for parts by Fitbit.

Even the fitness tracker giant itself hasn’t fared well, with a year that saw its stock steadily tumble as the public decided that they didn’t need another fitness tracker, thank you very much.

So in April’s issue of Factor, we scrape through the debris of the wearable technology industry to try and determine if there is anything left to be excited about, and what really does lie ahead on the horizon.

You have to read Factor to find that out, but right now we can tell you one thing about the future of the wearable tech industry: it’s not going to be saved by another smart payment ring or fitness tracking watch.

But we understand the smartwatch is the standard bearer for wearable tech, so we’re taking a look at the sorry state of the tech and ask where the likes of Apple and co can go to make their smartwatch offerings appealing, as well as charting the rise and fall of some of the industry’s major wearable tech players.

To write this month’s mag we took a trip to the 2017 Wearable Technology Show and found the fashion industry picking through wearable tech’s creaking remains, which suggests there is hope for things yet, even if it’s in a form that is totally unrecognisable from what’s available today. We look at how the fashion industry is making wearables wearable, and look at some of the avant-garde projects that are injecting creativity into proceedings.

It’s fair to say there’s a fair bit of pessimism around wearable tech at the moment, but don’t be deceived, the whole industry isn’t desperately trying to cling to former glories.

One area where promise still remains is hearables, and with tech such as Amazon’s Echo proving a hit, there is promise for audio-based wearable technology yet. We consider the likelihood of hearables following in the footsteps of smartphones to become “the fourth platform”, and look at how concerns around listening tech are adding fuel to the burning inferno that is the privacy debate.

Despite the industry’s failures, there are products that could truly be a hit if their manufacturers manage to get them right. We look at promise behind the emerging category of pollution-targeted wearables , consider the sleep-helping wearable that has actually been backed up by clinical trials and detail our wearables wish list of devices we’d like to see developed.

Plus, if you’d like a break from all things wearable technology, we also look at how the Trump administration is taking a political axe to the open and fair internet playing field, and consider the peculiar and largely forgotten history of Penny Arcade Adventures:  On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.

As well as this there’s all the latest news and we take a look at Bang & Olufsen’s BeoSound 2 in issue 35 of Factor magazine – out now on iPad and online.