While it may sound scary to turn over control of the steering wheel to a computer, the fact of the matter is driverless cars can already drive more safely and efficiently than we can. And with development led by Google, as well as Nissan and others, we’re talking a multi-trillion-dollar industry.
Writing for Forbes, Chunka Mui is in the midst of a startling 5-part series that looks into the future at the impacts of removing human error from the driving equation. What starts with a gee-whiz new technology could soon have far-reaching impacts on industries from new cars to auto insurance, parts and repair service; from health care to energy and telecommunications.
Google makes some bold claims about what life would look like in a future with every car on the road going autonomous.
90% fewer traffic accidents.
90% reduction in wasted commute time and energy.
90% reduction in the number of cars on the road.
A fleet of Google-developed autonomous Toyota Prius cars logged hundreds of thousands of miles on California public roadways before its first traffic accident, which was actually caused during a moment of driver intervention, the company says.
Thinking big picture, a huge drop in collisions means a complete reorganization of the car insurance industry. It means hundreds of billions in lost revenue for the health care industry that treats the millions of Americans injured every year in auto accidents. The same goes for body shops and parts suppliers.
Driverless cars, each connected to the cloud, can hum along at 75 mph on narrower roadways just inches apart. Commute times would drop, removing the downside to living further away from a city center. Fuel that would have been wasted by inefficient drivers would be saved. Driverless cars could park themselves stacked five-tall, then come when summoned by an owner or car sharing service.
The technology will be ready for prime time long before the public is ready to accept it, but Forbes’ Mr. Mui makes a strong case for autonomous cars completely shaking up industry as we know it, with Google and other key innovators standing to become titans, the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Consumer Reports has named the Toyota Prius the overall best value for your new car dollars. The Prius edged out the Honda Fit, which held the title for the previous 4 years. Although the Prius ($24,200) starts at around $8,500 more than the Fit, testers felt the Toyota’s winning blend of low cost of operation and excellent overall quality were enough to place it on top.
Said CR Automotive Editor Rik Paul:
“The Prius may not be the most exciting vehicle to drive, nor the cheapest to purchase, but it’s extremely reliable, roomy, rides well, gets great fuel economy, and is inexpensive to operate.”
Much more than just a car’s purchase price goes into overall value. An oft-overlooked factor is resale value, where the Prius excels even as cheaper-priced cars like the Nissan Versa falter. Costs of daily operation and repairs are just as important: luxury cars do not generally make good value buys, owing to their poorer fuel efficiency and the sky-high cost of parts and labor as much as their higher transaction prices.
The 2013 Consumer Reports Best Value award winners by segment:
The next-generation Toyota Prius will arrive in dealerships in Spring of 2015 and will attain at least 60 combined mpg on the EPA cycle, an insider at Toyota said to Motor Trend in a new tell-all interview. In creating the new fourth-generation model, Toyota seeks to distance itself from other fine hybrids like the Ford C-MAX with a brand-new Hybrid Synergy Drive system and a sleeker, forward-thinking design the company hopes will appeal to the same tech lovers and creative types that have made the lineup such a success.
Here’s what we know so far:
Design: While the new car will still be instantly recognizable as a Prius, Toyota has lowered the hood line by 3.5 inches. The A-pillar will be moved rearward while the roofline will be pushed forward. Wheelbase, and proportions toward the rear of the car, will stay about the same, but the overall look will be sleeker and less wedge-shaped.
Hybrid Synergy Drive: The Prius will debut Toyota’s next-generation hybrid system, a smaller and lighter unit that will help cut overall weight by around 150 lbs. Since a number of Toyota hybrid patents expire in 2013, the company plans to raise the bar once again just as the rest of the industry catches up. With a modified Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder, probably still displacing 1.8-liters, the new standard Prius model will stay with nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries. Efficiency will improve by around 20%. A plug-in version with around 22 miles of electric-only range will debut with the standard hybrid model.
Drivetrain and Performance: The new car should be a lot more fun to drive, gaining a double-wishbone independent rear suspension and a new electric-augmented AWD system providing torque to the rear wheels at low speeds. With more luggage space, and a lower center of gravity thanks to the smaller, lighter hybrid system, Toyota’s newest promises less compromise to go with the outstanding mpg savings.
Hybrid cars no longer have the novelty value they enjoyed a few years ago, so Toyota hopes to place the advanced new Prius as a technology showcase and green halo model for the brand. Though there are many fine new hybrids on the market, none have been able to unseat the Prius in the all-important mpg race. Looks like Toyota won’t be letting that happen any time soon.
Following the example of Nevada and Florida, which have already legalized automated cars for public roadway use, the bill would require the California DMV to draft regulations for automakers and motorists to follow when adopting this new technology.
What Google has achieved is nothing short of amazing. Using a complex array of radar, cameras, sensors and GPS navigation, the modified Prius Hybrid creates a 3D image of its surroundings. The car’s brain knows traffic laws better than you do, but any intervention by the person sitting behind the wheel disables the automated system and returns control to the driver.
Since the computer can make decisions like slowing down for a stoplight you will not catch and using the optimum throttle and brake input for any given situation, Google’s Prius is also more efficient than even the most green-friendly drivers can manage. We envision “driverless” toll lanes where traffic can cruise smoothly and evenly at 70 mph in the heart of rush hour traffic.
Driverless Cars: Privacy Concerns
Consumer advocate groups, including the influential Consumer Watchdog non-profit, have urged Brown to veto the bill–it already has passed the State Senate–because it does not contain any language regulating or addressing collection of private personal data, like when and where you drive and what establishments you frequent. Google does not exactly have a sterling record for privacy practices, so this is a real area of concern.
Would you consent to Google tracking your whereabouts and your private information while you drive, then sharing it with advertisers? These are the questions we need to ask as the industry moves into a new era of automation technology.
The Nissan LEAF is holding strong on the used car market, with a used 2011 model valued at $23,975 or 95% of the 2011 car’s sticker price new, after factoring in Federal electric car tax rebates. The used car market experts at the NADA Guides predict that the LEAF will hold value better than the Chevrolet Volt (90% of its value after 1 year) and the Toyota Prius (88%).
The reasoning lies behind still-high gas prices and the lack of available Nissan EVs on the used car market. If you’d like to find a used LEAF (or Chevy Volt) for a great deal, you should act in the next few months. NADA predicts that by the end of this year, prices will go up as a higher number of LEAFs hit the market after being retired by rental fleets.
Nissan’s pioneering electric car can travel for around 73 miles from fully charged, while a recharge at a 240V home quick-charging station takes around 7 hours. The attractive hatch has gone through a recent price increase while adding more standard equipment, now available from $36,050 before any Federal and state electric car tax credits.