Human drivers are woefully inefficient, stabbing the gas and the brakes all the time instead of grooving into a smooth cruise. Efficiency improves further when the cars route themselves as a group, like human drivers can do today with services like Waze, which give directions based on road and traffic conditions to avoid congestion.
Add to that cutting emissions by going electric, and you can see how a new study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory would find that robot cars, powered from a central grid, could reduce taxi emissions by 94% compared to today’s gas-powered, human-steered cabs.
Self-driving cars can also flock together, running nose-to-tail (called “platooning)”, like Tour de France cyclists in a pack. This “slipstreaming” reduces the wind resistance on all but the lead car and results in yet more fuel savings.
And if you’re going to build a fleet of robot cabs, you might consider making them smaller. First, most car trips are made with only the driver and one passenger in the car. If you remove the human taxi driver, then two-seater cabs should get the job done most of the time. And while we’re planning the future of robotic transport, I’d like to request cabs that can double as cargo-carriers, perhaps with fold-flat seats so I can send my Ikea purchases home while I ride back on my bike.
The more we look at the figures showing how we actually use our cars, as opposed to how we think we use them, the more a fleet of electric cabs makes sense. This PDF from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey tells us that almost all car trips go only a few miles from home, and that the majority of journeys are just 20 minutes long. In other words, trips that are better made in an electric taxi.
If we want to keep the perceived freedoms of individual automobiles over bulk public transit, then self-driving taxis seem to be the way to do it. You don’t need to own a car, the environmental impact is way lower, and it’s quicker and cheaper to boot. Who needs taxi drivers?