Self-driving cars: a new era for public mobility (and the environment)

humanity is passing a crucial time for the future of the planet and the very survival of humanity: the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels in the last 150 years has created profound environmental mutations, and the next decades will be crucial to try to slow down (and hopefully stop) the process of generating greenhouse gases (mainly CO2 ), and the consequent increase in the average surface temperature of our (beautiful but delicate) planet.

It is estimated that, in order to maintain rising temperatures limited to +2°, humanity has a “residual budget” of around 1500-2000Gtons of CO2 generated by fossil fuels, compared to an equivalent total value of all fossil fuels we know of which could be around 20-30 times greater than this value. This means that much of the fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) will have to remain buried and unused, but to achieve this very difficult result, each sector responsible for anthropogenic CO2 emissions needs to quickly identify effective solutions.

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The three “megatrends” of future mobility

The world of mobility, responsible for about ¼ of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, moves to respond to this enormous criticality, along 3 main “megatrends”:

Electric car, car sharing, self-driving car and more. Don’t miss the Automotive Up news!

  • Switch to electric vehicles (with onboard energy storage based on electrochemical batteries and/or hydrogen)
  • Development of “service” models (Mobility As A Service – MAAS), which aim to transform the automobile from a private property and use asset into a shared and public asset.
  • Development of autonomous vehicle technology (from level 3 of “conditioned autonomy” to level 5 of “total autonomy”)

Autonomous vehicle technology and car sharing

These three “megatrends” are not related to each other: there is one – the autonomous vehicle technology – which will be the real catalyst (a kind of “big bang”) of the transition to new mobility models. In fact, it is this technology that will make the use of “car-sharing” useful and economically convenient (or “robot taxis”). The transition to public and “shared” car-based mobility will further facilitate and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.

The current “car-sharing” is in fact very limited by the accessibility and availability of shared vehicles: to guarantee the availability of car-sharing vehicles with very short access times, today it would be necessary huge size fleetsresulting in the impossibility of an economic equilibrium point.

The availability of fully autonomous cars would completely change the scenario: an autonomous vehicle can move autonomously, guaranteeing direct access to the user (it is the car that comes to me and not I who have to look for the car…), but above all a continuous optimal relocation based on time of day and area of ​​the city.

Mobility based on public vehicles

At the same time, mobility based on public vehicles greatly reduces the problem of range and loading times: a large public transport fleet can be managed in an overall excellent way, both from the standpoint of range and from a time point of view. and charging times (unlike private vehicles, which are subject to very strict and suboptimal restrictions, to suit the needs of their owner).

We are currently still in the early stages of developing self-driving car technology. There are numerous models on the market with level 2 autonomy characteristics (automatic control of longitudinal and lateral dynamics, but only in certain contexts, and above all with constant supervision by the driver), while there are still no vehicles with level 3 autonomy on the market. (the real “quantum leap”, as level 3 foresees the possibility of a real disengagement of the driver, and the responsibility of driving – with the relative responsibilities – of the “autopilot”).

The real revolution in 10-15 years

It is likely to take another 10 to 15 years to see vehicles with autonomy level 4 or 5, which can be purchased by anyone and allowed to drive without restrictions on public roads.

At this point, the “revolution” will be triggered which, in fact, will be a form of “fork”:

  • Most vehicles will become “robot taxis”, for public use; will be very expensive and complex vehicles, but with a much smaller number than current private vehicles (a reduction factor of up to ten is estimated)
  • There will remain a niche of “emotional” vehicles, probably privately owned, of which the “pleasure of driving” will stand out, possibly confined to private circuits.

This revolution will also take place through marked changes in the structure of the automobile industry: New players will enter (first and foremost the giants of consumer electronics or digital services), and all current providers will have to reconfigure to better integrate into a vastly more complex vehicular technology than in the past, where the emphasis will be almost entirely in ICT technologies: control systems, algorithms, communication systems, software, sensors and powerful computing platforms.

The first “autonomous motorsport” competition

In this scenario that anticipates a revolution, the novelty of the first days of 2022 was an event that, in some way, has a historical significance: inside the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (this year it returned “presence”) , the first “autonomous motorsport” competition: in the oval of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 9 identical cars, with 9 different “artificial intelligence” drivers on board, developed by so many international research groups, are challenged in the first multi-agent competition race, fully autonomous, at very high speed (almost 280km/h was reached in the final race). This historic competition saw Italy in the foreground: the winning team was the “PoliMOVE” team of the Politecnico di Milano, and the third place was won by the Italian-Emirate team “TII-Euroracing”, born from the collaboration between the University of Modena and the TII Institute of Abu Dhabi.

The birth of autonomous motorsport has three main goals:

  • Introducing the industry’s most important and revolutionary technology to the world of motorsport automotive for the next 10-20 years
  • Develop the technology and know-how of the most critical and difficult “edge-cases” for a level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicle, or better, highly complex and dynamic emergency situations
  • Develop talents in a context of very high speed of professional growth and highly motivating, and then make them available to the automotive industry

In this new and challenging discipline, Italy has shown that it has all the skills, desire and abilities to face this epochal technological challenge as a protagonist that will change the way we move and that will decisively contribute to the safety of people and to protect the planet.


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