Runnin’ Down a Dream

  John Eichberger |  July 2020

A popular vision for the future of transportation has been assigned a variety of acronyms, but the one I seem to like the best is ACES – it makes me think of Molly Ringwald rolling her eyes in the John Hughes’ classic film, “Sixteen Candles.”  It stands for Autonomous Connected Electric Shared and presents a scenario in which human-driven vehicles become a thing of the past, traffic accidents and congestion are eliminated, and vehicle emissions disappear. The entities developing this scenario are plentiful, as are the predictions for when this model will represent the primary manner in which people travel.

While I am skeptical that such a paradigm (on a massive scale) will materialize in my lifetime, I am confident that elements will begin to deploy in the very near term in certain use cases. These are exciting opportunities that could provide valuable proof of concept, iron out the challenges associated with greater deployment and usher in a new era of safe and efficient mobility – even if it is not 100% “ACES.”

Which brings me to this month’s song choice – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” So many lyrics in this song are appropriate, but I think the concept that there is a dream scenario of the future that could land us in a much better place is pretty cool – we should pursue a vision and recognize that the pursuit will result in progress:

Yeah, runnin’ down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
Runnin’ down a dream

The ACES concept is complex and requires integration between vehicles and infrastructure. The full deployment will require massive collaboration between business, government and consumers – the likes of which I have never witnessed. However, each element of the ACES platform is entering the market now and delivering value to consumers. For purposes of this assessment, let’s take a high-level look at each element and see what is happening.

Autonomous

While skeptical that autonomous vehicles (AV) will populate every roadway and replace human drivers in the near future, I am very confident that limited use case deployment will commence relatively soon. I see two specific areas in which I think we will witness AV success first: 

  • Product Delivery – I have already seen autonomous delivery pods (they remind me of droids from Star Wars) traversing roads in the Northern Virginia area in a university setting. In addition, Amazon’s droids began delivering products to households last year. I can envision a situation in which an Amazon or FedEx or UPS vehicle parks at the entrance to a neighborhood and deploys a dozen or more of these droids to execute touchless delivery to residences, return to the vehicle and then move on to the next neighborhood. It would accelerate delivery times, reduce energy consumption and reduce delivery costs. And because the droids would be operating within a limited geographic region, it would be relatively simple to control external challenges. 
  • Freight Transport – As most people know, almost everything we buy was delivered to the point of purchase by a truck. Yet, because the industry has been suffering from a lack of drivers, this is a market that could benefit greatly from autonomy. Many of the truck routes follow interstate corridors, which do not present many challenges to the operation of a vehicle. I can see these major routes being integrated into autonomous truck corridors that could be navigated in the middle of the night and travel from one location to another where a driver would take control for final delivery through more complex road conditions. Two companies have made quite a bit of progress in demonstrating these capabilities (Otto and TuSimple), and as long ago as 2016 a platoon of 12 trucks crossed Europe without drivers. 

It felt so good, like anything was possible
Hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes
The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine

Connected

It is clear that modern vehicles are much more than just transportation tools – the amount of computing power they possess and their potential to communicate with other vehicles and stationary infrastructure yield tremendous opportunities to introduce more convenience and safety features for consumers. Manufacturers are counting on the driver linking banking information to the vehicle and the vehicle always being connected to the internet. This will affect not only mobility, but commerce in general. Furthermore, the connected vehicle can help optimize traffic control mechanisms to reduce congestion and, consequently, emissions. These technologies are already in the market and it will just be a matter of time before the infrastructure is ready to collaborate with the vehicles.

Electric

The Fuels Institute has written extensively on this topic, so I will not repeat what has been written other than to say that vehicle electrification is a reality. It is expanding and will represent a significant portion of the transportation fleet in the future. For the latest insights and a discussion about the need for recharging infrastructure, check out our most recent webinar, “EV Charging Infrastructure: Where is it needed and how do you get involved?

Shared

As kids, we are taught to share – unfortunately, most of us did not learn that lesson very well. I remember the old joke about the spoiled child saying his nightly prayer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my toys to break,
So none of the other kids can play with them.” 

Well, if you look at carpooling trends it is pretty clear that the vast majority of people don’t want to share their car either and, in most regions of the United States, don’t really want to use mass transit. The rapid expansion of Uber, Lyft and Didi put that assumption into question, but the shine on these services was fading even before COVID took over the headlines.

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees went by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’

ACES Forecasts

There have been some very high-profile predictions about the future of shared transport, incorporating the various elements of the ACES concept.  Most of the forecasts with which I am familiar are really aggressive, but they demonstrate the passion with which many are approaching the concept. Here are two examples: 

  • RethinkX – In 2017, Tony Seba made headlines with his report from RethinkX in which he predicts by 2030, and within 10 years of AV approval for regular transport, that 95% of all miles traveled within the U.S. will be completed via on-demand, electric, autonomous transportation service providers, which he dubbed TAAS – Transportation As A Service.  He predicts that TAAS will provide mobility for a cost that would be ten times more affordable than owning and operating a personal vehicle and that the ownership of vehicles will essentially disappear. 
  • Bob Lutz – In November 2017, the former Vice Chairman of General Motors wrote an editorial in titled, “Kiss the Good Times Goodbye,” in which he predicts “we are approaching the end of the automotive era.” In that piece, Mr. Lutz writes that AVs will be so inherently safe that the government will be compelled within the next 15 - 20 years to legislate human drivers off the road and that all features associated with vehicle ownership will be gone within 20 years. 

As stated above, I disagree with the aggressive schedule associated with these forecasts, but I do not disagree with the general trajectory of technology and the consumer benefits that can be gleaned from the various elements of an ACES scenario. Full deployment to a driverless future does not seem likely, in my opinion, but aspiring for a congestion/accident/emissions free mobility system that increases overall convenience and productivity for consumers is a wonderful objective.

Whether society converts 100% to this scenario or not, somewhere between where we are today and this vision will deliver benefits. We have already witnessed it – lane departure warning, collision avoidance technology, blind spot indicators, intelligent cruise control – have all benefited consumers at a time when they are much more likely to be distracted by other non-mobility related technological innovations.

It is also encouraging that the U.S. Department of Energy and the network of national labs are engaged in a collaborative effort called Energy Efficient Mobility Systems (EEMS). This initiative “supports research and development that investigates how disruptive forces such as automated, connected, electric and/or shared (ACES) vehicles will impact energy consumption in transportation.” The combined resources and expertise of the labs will prove invaluable to maximizing the energy benefits associated with these elements of transportation.

The future is yet to unfold and how it will eventually materialize will forever be the topic of debate. But I believe strongly and have largely led my life by the theory that if we set ourselves a lofty objective and do what we can to achieve it, even if we fall short from that original vision where we end up will likely be pretty rewarding. Let’s keep talking about what transportation might look like in the future – it might never reach the vision of the Jetson’s, but we sure will not be regressing back to the Flintstones.

I rolled on, the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine

Yeah, runnin’ down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
Runnin’ down a dream

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