“Autonomous driving will be a revolution”

Written by Andrea Schmits
Photos by Julian Salinas

December 10, 2019

In the future, self-driving taxis will replace privately owned cars, says the traffic planning specialist Thomas Sauter-Servaes. Car sharing could reduce the number of vehicles and free up space, resulting in more green areas and cycle paths, better air quality, and far fewer accidents. In addition, there will be autonomous buses, which are already undergoing successful testing.

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Mr. Sauter-Servaes, many cities are currently testing autonomous vehicles. How do you view this development?

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of what is happening. If autonomous driving is applied comprehensively, it will not be an evolution but a revolution. One can compare this change with the transition from the “dumbphone” to the smartphone: It has completely transformed our lives. But it is important that we use technology in a way that improves our quality of life.

What do you mean by that?

If all the drivers simply replace their private car with a self-driving model, we won’t have gained anything, on the contrary: Automatic driving opens up new target groups such as children and the elderly. The result would be even more traffic on the roads. We must prevent this scenario from taking place.

What is the alternative? 

In order to exploit the potential of the new technology, society must change its mindset: The car-on-demand approach, i.e. a form of car-sharing for everyone, is currently being discussed at length. In combination with trip sharing, this would make sense.

How could this work? clog up

Car-on-demand means that nobody owns a private car. Self-driving cars pick up passengers either at home or at virtual stops. In the best-case scenario, multiple trip requests could be handled by a single vehicle.

And everybody would stop walking anywhere?

Naturally, this must not happen. City streets must be transformed from transit areas back into attractive recreational spaces. It is important that the space gained is used to make cities more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.  

Which spaces are you referring to? 

Most parking lots would no longer be necessary, for example those along the roads. The reason being that the utilization of cars would be far higher due to ride and car sharing. This would mean fewer vehicles and in addition, these cars would spend much less time not in use. Today, a car is not driven 95 percent of the time. This is a complete waste of space. There is huge potential here, which we have to exploit.

But many people still want to own their own car – and to drive it themselves.

Certainly, society must first change its mindset, because one hundred years of car advertising have left their mark on us. We associate owning a car with freedom, status, and comfort. This is cemented in our heads and in our cities. This change will take a long time. But in the past, we also could not imagine that restaurants would ever become smoke-free. Who knows, maybe driving yourself will someday be viewed in the same way as smoking is now.

Vehicles driven by people clog up cities and endanger road users.
 

Why? Because it is also harmful?

Vehicles driven by people clog up cities and endanger road users. After all, 70 to 90 percent of all accidents are attributable to human error. Autonomous vehicles have a considerably better safety record: The computer never gets irritated and never uses the phone while driving.

Isn’t there room on the roads for everyone?

A mix of self-driving cars and conventional cars is problematic. Already today, the pilot projects show that many people get angry because the autonomous cars adhere strictly to the rules: It only ever drives as fast as allowed. In Arizona, there have even been cases where drivers have tried to force autonomous cars off the road. In mixed systems, the efficiency also decreases because autonomous cars can drive much closer together. However, it is conceivable that the infrastructure could be divided into separate networks for autonomous cars and for conventional vehicles. 

Many people find self-driving cars scary. What if the car is hacked?

Of course, new developments usually come with new risks. But the danger of a hacker attack also exists with airplanes that have been covering long distances on autopilot for decades. If we allow ourselves to be discouraged by such risks, we can give up digitalization altogether.

What about data protection? The providers would know exactly when and where we travel.

This issue calls for regulation and good business models. It is conceivable, for example, that some providers could guarantee that all data is deleted after 24 hours, which would set them apart from the competition. But experience also shows: Whenever something makes life more comfortable, people tend to forget about data protection.

Will autonomous cars replace today's public transport?

No, at best the boundaries between public and private transport will become blurred. But on the major transport routes it will still make sense to bundle passengers in large vehicles such as trains.

What is the potential of autonomous mobility for freight transport?

The opportunities here are even more promising than in private transport because no emotions are involved. It’s a simple matter of calculation. Platooning is already being tested today: This means that several trucks drive in a convoy, but only the front truck is controlled by a driver. This is an intermediate stage on the path to complete automation. 

This sounds like we will soon be surrounded by autonomous vehicles. 

No, the development is still in the early stages. Some people believe that the first autonomous cars will be launched in a few years’ time. I think that is too optimistic. The technology and the necessary regulatory adjustments are just too complex. But we still have to prepare ourselves. We need a vision for the overall transport system in 2050. The technological answers are developing rapidly, now we have to ask the right questions. Because there’s one thing everybody agrees on: autonomous driving is coming.

Personal profile

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Thomas Sauter-Servaes is responsible for the Transport Systems engineering degree course at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW). He also conducts research at the ZHAW School of Engineering, focusing on innovative services and business models in the field of mobility.

Where autonomous vehicles are already on the road

All around the globe, developers are testing self-driving vehicles. A selection. 

Switzerland:
Since March 2018, a self-driving shuttle bus has been in operation in the Swiss municipality of Neuhausen am Rheinfall. The vehicle has 11 seats and is integrated into the public transport system. There is always an accompanying person on board. The bus travels in mixed traffic with conventional vehicles through the center of the village. It covers three stops, but its route will soon be extended to the Rhine Falls.
Since 2016, two autonomous buses have been running on a 1.5 kilometer circuit in the old town of Sion in western Switzerland. Autonomous buses are also in operation in other Swiss cities such as Zug or Fribourg. A project in Geneva is still a dream of the future: the city is currently examining the feasibility of drone taxis.

US:
Since mid-2018, anyone on the Las Vegas Strip can use vehicles that are driven by algorithms. Passengers book and pay for their trip using an app. Currently there is always a driver on board who can take control if necessary. Autonomous vehicles are also on the road in Arizona.

Singapore:
In Singapore, an autonomous shuttle runs through the new botanical garden. Additional providers are testing their systems on the campus of the technological university. Starting in 2022, the first self-driving buses will operate in three suburbs of the city state outside rush hours.

Germany:
The German logistics company DB Schenker was the first worldwide to put two digitally networked trucks on the road in the summer of 2018. The trucks travel between Munich and Nuremberg using the platooning system: This means that only the front truck in a convoy is controlled by a driver. Although there is also a driver in the rear truck, it is controlled by a computer. The aim is to not only make transport safer, but also more sustainable, because driving in the slipstream of the front truck saves fuel.


Artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, smart homes: The future is closer than we think. As a journalist, I have a passion for many topics – and I enjoy telling readers the stories behind them. I have been doing this for print and online magazines, newspapers, and blogs for more than a decade. Before that, I studied journalism and sociology at the University of Zurich.
Photos by Julian Salinas

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