Earlier this month, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) boldly announced that its members had "selected autonomous vehicles as the most promising form of intelligent transportation, anticipating that they will account for up to 75 percent of cars on the road by the year 2040".
Which raises a very serious question: are these guys nuts, or are they on to something?
We don't know the answer to that just yet, but we do know that IEEE has high hopes for our technological future -- not to mention high expectations for Joe and Jane Public to take that sometimes-confusing technology to heart. That said, IEEE members are usually pretty smart, so we take their predictions seriously.
Let's examine the specifics of IEEE's predictions so we can give you our honest assessment of how right (or wrong) they might be.
The IEEE sees four major changes ahead -- changes that will affect the way we travel and the way we think about transportation.
1. IEEE predicts that traffic lights will be eliminated by 2040. IEEE's Dr. Alberto Broggi, who teaches computer engineering at the University of Parma in Italy, says that in the future, "Intersections will be equipped with sensors, cameras and radars that can monitor and control traffic flow to help eliminate driver collisions and promote a more efficient flow of traffic. The cars will be operating automatically, thereby eliminating the need for traffic lights."
Probability: 50%. Broggi isn't entirely off-base: even before fully autonomous vehicles arrive, we'll see huge advances in vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, which will allow cars to communicate with one-another and the surrounding infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Transportation is already exploring ways to implement this technology, and Volvo just concluded some very interesting work on "road trains" using its SARTRE autonomous car system. (Cue the "no exit" jokes.)
Still, it's hard to believe that every single vehicle on the road in 2040 will come equipped with V2V tech, much less fully autonomous capability. But then again, 28 years is a long time for technology to develop.
2. IEEE predicts that highways will have designated lanes for autonomous vehicles by 2040. This would work much like today's system of HOV lanes, allowing drivers with autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles to travel more quickly from Point A to Point B. Those cars and trucks would be able to move at greater speeds and do so more safely, since they're in conversation with one-another.
Probability: 90%. Dedicated lanes seems like a smart, safe, inexpensive way for cities to accommodate autonomous vehicles and gauge rates of adoption. In fact, if demand is strong enough, we could envision a slightly different scenario -- one in which drivers of traditional vehicles are relegated to special lanes of their own.
3. IEEE predicts that car-sharing will become commonplace as car-ownership declines. Cars will become more like taxis or personal buses, hired for short periods of time to move people around town. As a result, the IEEE predicts that the need for driver's licensing programs will gradually fade away. After all, you don't need a license to sit in a taxi.
Probability: 60%. It's true that the demand for car-sharing is growing, and if the increased visibility of outfits like Zipcar are any indication, that trend will likely continue. However, we're not entirely sure that autonomous vehicles will boost demand for car-sharing any faster than the two factors that are driving it right now: increasing urbanization (which makes car ownership difficult and expensive), and Generation Y's lack of interest in car ownership.