Over 90% of traffic accidents are caused by driver error; the safety potential of self-drive is well understood. When traffic accidents become rare, a motorcycle is almost as safe as an SUV. Vehicle weights could fall to the point that pod-cars weighing less than the riders are the preferred choice in the city. Since 65% of U.S. vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are urban, the ramifications are enormous. An aerodynamic ultra-light vehicle that avoids stop-and-go needs only one-tenth the energy of an automobile; a 25 pound battery would suffice. Light batteries can be easily swapped, eliminating range anxiety. A bank of batteries can be recharged when the wind blows and the sun shines. Fossil fuel demand, pollution and green house gas production could fall dramatically.
For most people, transportation automation is rocket science. The Elcano Project aims to make self-drive real for students and hobbyists, and build a popular demand to go ahead with traffic automation. The technology is here; laws and policies to take advantage of it are not.
An isolated autonomous car can improve safety, but the other benefits require choreographing road users; when done right, highway capacity goes up three to eight times, and congestion mostly disappears. If manual and automated traffic were allowed to mix, the manually driven cars would snarl up the automated lane; thus there needs to be separated lanes. A lane set apart for automated vehicles looks a lot like Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a technology that has been around for more than 40 years. Today PRT systems are in operation; other automated road systems are only at the testing phase.
When an automated vehicle is in a reserved lane, the sensors get simpler and less expensive — no need for lidar, radar or extensive machine vision. The Elcano Project provides a blueprint for building your own experimental automated vehicle using electronics and sensors costing under $1000. A tricycle with an electric helper motor under 750 Watt and top speed under 20 mph is legally a bicycle, and thus street-legal without license, registration or insurance.
T. C. Folsom (2013A) “Self-Driving Tricycles”, International Bicycle Urbanism Symposium, Seattle, June 19-22.
T. C. Folsom (2013B) “The Modular Bus”, Traffic Technology International, Aug-Sept.