Share By Micheline Maynard, Forbes
Some people have likened it to a beanie on wheels. Others see a smile in its headlights. And there’s talk that it could change automotive design forever.
No matter how you view it, the latest version of Google’s self-driving car is causing a lot of buzz.
But the conversation isn’t just about what it will mean for individual motorists. A number of experts think that self-driving cars, or what some call driverless cars, could hold a big promise for public transportation.
If you think that’s far-fetched, consider the skepticism that enveloped Tesla Motors just a few short years ago. Who would pay $70,000 for an electric sedan, people asked. And, who would be interested in an electric sport utility or even a mass market electric car?
Enough people raised their hand to make Tesla the focus of the auto industry. It’s now finalizing the first site for its $5 billion gigafactory. And at some point, the Google car may generate the same excitement for moving people around in quantities.
I looked at this topic in my new FORBES eBook, Curbing Cars: America’s Independence From The Auto Industry. In the book, University of Michigan economist Donald Grimes explored the idea that self-driving vehicles could have an active role to play in conjunction with bus, subway and other transit systems.
The two drawbacks to public transportation, as he sees it, are the cost (not just fares, but the expense to cities of maintaining the systems) and the inconvenience to riders who cannot simply hail a bus or a subway when they need one.
“But think about the potential for a driverless car as a mass transit vehicle,’ Grimes says. “Envision those driverless vehicles rooming the city. Someone calls a central dispatcher, or sends an email or text message to a computer, which then identifies the nearest driverless vehicle and sends it to pick the passenger up.”
Grimes goes on, “As that vehicle is en route to its destination, it can pick up other passengers on the way. It drops the passenger off at his or her preferred destination, and goes on to pick someone else up.”
As Grimes puts it, “To me, the basis of future mass transit is not buses or trains running on fixed routes, but more of a sophisticated taxi system without drivers, and where the vehicles use sophisticated software and communications systems to pick up and deliver multiple passengers on any particular trip.”
As you’re reading about the latest Google invention, keep in mind the idea that it won’t just be you and I getting around in it by ourselves. We could be sharing with our neighbors, too.
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