Imagine if we could make buses as fast and convenient as cars without increasing the cost of a ticket. Wouldn’t it be great if that new form of bus had zero emissions? As long as we have a wish list going, I would also like to eliminate traffic jams.

school-of-fish

When swarms become reality, few of us will own a car. We will never again have to see a car salesman or a car mechanic. We will no longer pay car insurance, taxes or registration. It sounds too good to be true, but all of these things will be possible and what’s more, likely, with the advent of self-driving, personal buses, traveling in swarms.

Before we can image a personal bus that’s as convenient as a car, we need to understand why we hate buses and to what extent.

How much do we hate public transit?

There are enough distasteful things about car ownership that if there were any comparably convenient way to travel, we would probably ditch our vehicle. According to AAA the average annual cost of new car ownership is $7,581 per year for 10,000 miles driven. On the other hand, unlimited rides on Denver’s transit system only costs $1,881. That’s a pretty good reason to forgo a car, yet only 5% of workers use Denver’s transit system (figure 6).

Said another way, we are 20 times more likely to use a car to get around even though cars are 4 times more expensive than buses. That’s a lot of hate.

Why do we hate public transit?

We spend thousands of extra dollars per year to avoid public transportation for one reason: other people. You maybe thinking, I can put up with other people. They aren’t that bad. But that’s a lie. If it weren’t for other people buses would be just as fast as cars. Other people cause bus stops to be located at points most convenient for the group, not you alone. Other people don’t work, play, and travel on exactly your schedule, so cities arrange bus schedules for groups as well. Then things really get bogged down. Your pickup and drop off locations are not the only ones along the route where buses stop. Damn, those other people! Finally, instead of bus routes arranged for your convenience, they are sprinkled all over in such a way that hardly any of them are sufficient to get you to your destination on their own. You have to transfer to another bus at least once to make it to your destination. That of course starts the entire foul process of catching the bus all over again. Oh the humanity!

Essentially, after doing the math, we realize that even though cars are much more expensive than riding the bus, time is also valuable and we still come out far ahead by owning our own cars. The reality is buses aren’t the real problem. Sharing vehicles with other people is what makes public transit excruciatingly slow. And that’s why we hate it.

Come on. Buses are better!

Many arguments in favor of buses have been made over the years. Here is just one example. Ride a bus, it would eliminate traffic! Sure that’s true, but it doesn’t matter. We still hate buses and most of us don’t ride them.

60-people-car-v-bus

One of several messages that I come back to time and again on this website is that people will not switch to energy efficient lifestyles because of any of the following:

  1. It’s the right thing to do
  2. It will reduce pollution
  3. It will stop global warming

People (including me) are terrible at self control1, but thankfully, we are amazing inventors of technology. The human race will switch to a zero emissions lifestyle when it is more fun, more convenient, and less expensive. Let’s see what that means for buses.

The bleeding edge in buses

buses-01

So… the world hasn’t changed overnight.

Other than being shorter, and removing the driver’s seat, electric and self-driving buses are really no different than the tried and true public transportation buses we are all used to. Neither the electric bus, nor the self driving version, do anything other than their names imply, which means these new buses will be hated as much as current public transit.

Fixing the problem

What if we tried to use self driving and electric technology to make a bus that people actually liked? Simply taking the old bus form with new technology forced into it, doesn’t fix anything. As discussed at length above, all the problems of the past boil down to one thing, other people. To make buses popular we need to fix the problem.

Taking a first-principles problem solving approach, we need buses to be just as fast as cars from doorstep to destination, but the only way to make them as fast as cars would be to eliminate all other riders not traveling from your doorstep to your destination. The only way to do that is to provide a personal bus.

This appears to be the way buses are headed. The creators of Olli, the IBM attempt at a self driving bus, decided on a 12 person capacity. 12 people means many fewer travelers than an average bus, but…

self-driving-bus-01

It’s still 11 people more than optimal for getting to your destination as quickly as possible. Even if there were just one other person that you had to pick up and drop off and even if they were directly on the route most convenient for you already, you would still hate it. Slowing down, stopping, waiting while someone gets onboard, significantly increases your travel time. Again, to review, people hate sharing rides. We hate it so much that walking is 5 times more popular than bus travel.

trips-by-transit-type-copy

The U.S. Department of Transportation also noted single passenger personal vehicle travel is responsible for 37% of all trips. So, why travel in a vehicle the size of a car? Most of the time you will be riding around with 4 empty seats.

To maximize efficiency and minimize fuel usage, each of us should be traveling in vehicles designed to carry the exact number of people in our group. A family of 4 should travel in a car with 4 seats, but when the wage earners of the family are headed to work (usually alone, according to the DOT), they should each be traveling in a one person vehicle to optimize speed, efficiency and comfort for the cost required to get from point A to point B.

I propose getting rid of the traditional bus and replacing it with perfectly scaled transport for the number of people traveling.

Enter the Swarm

The future bus isn’t the big boxy vehicle of yesterday. The future will be composed of schools of fish, armies of ants, or better yet murmurations of starlings. Have you seen a murmuration? It’s hypnotizing, and it’s exactly what can be accomplished with self driving vehicles. Public transit and by extension nearly all transit will be swarms of small and medium cars traveling in groups. Below you can see a swarm of six pods traveling together at the exact same speed. Linked through software, the pods speed up and slow down in unison. They travel tightly grouped, two abreast per lane. Then, one traveler’s route diverges from the rest and exits the highway.

bus-swarm

The pod, having left the swarm, will either join with another swarm on an adjacent highway, or it will continue on surface streets directly to the rider’s specified destination.

Swarm configurations provide a multitude of benefits. Most importantly, swarms eliminate the biggest drawback of public transit, other people. The only people in your pod are the ones traveling with you from pickup to destination. Fellow pod occupants are only your family, friends, and acquaintances. The strangers a bus would normally be stopping to pick up and drop off are also part of the swarm, but they are in other pods. Swarms eliminate mid-journey stops for everyone. Standard sized cars used in the same way would also work, but not as well. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (table 16), the average vehicle passenger count drops to 1.13 for work commutes. If full size cars were used as they are now, rush hour traffic could still cause slow downs. On the other hand, pod swarms would be smaller and take up less than half the space of current vehicles since they could travel closer together in 2 dimensions: front to back and side to side. Only a small percentage of rush hour traffic would need to transition to swarms of pods for traffic jams to become a thing of the past.

Cost comparison

As I outlined previously, If self driving cars were exactly the same size as current vehicles, utilizing a self driving car service will only cost about 20% of current car ownership. This is because fleet based self driving cars will:

  1. be self insured (>90% insurance cost reduction)
  2. be electric (>80% fuel cost reduction)
  3. have fewer years of financing (>75% financing cost reduction)
  4. be properly maintained
  5. be conservatively driven
  6. last longer due to fewer car crashes

Now consider what would happen if instead of standard size cars, people used cars sized to the number of travelers in a group. For a group of 3 or more, a mid-size 5 person car probably makes sense. When traveling solo, like the vast majority of folks commuting to work, a self driving, single occupant, pod car (similar to the concept car by Electra Meccanica below), would get better fuel efficiency, would take up less road space, and would be able to travel in swarms.

meccanica02

Additional saving from swarm based public transit

  1. Smaller cars cost less to manufacture.
  2. Cars would no longer be tied to personal image if they were hired on a subscription basis instead of personally owned. Car companies could manufacture 3-5 car types instead of hundreds increasing standardization. To provide a point of comparison, General Motors alone builds over 100 vehicle models for 13 different brand platforms. That means huge savings in vehicle design, engineering and manufacturing.
  3. Platooning, the standard word for swarm travel on highways, can decrease fuel consumption by 20%.
  4. According to a study by INRIX, a vehicle based data analysis company, the U.S. will lose $2.8 trillion to congestion issues between 2013 and 2030. Swarms would eliminate congestion.

Conclusion

When self driving vehicles explode onto the scene, they will force buses into museums. Never again will a bus travel across a city without any riders due to standard routes during off peak hours. Efficient swarm software will provide the right size vehicle for you or your group. Pods will pick you up where ever you are and drop you off just feet from the door of your final destination.

In the future, you’ll be a single starling in the murmuration, and when that day comes, it will be a beautiful thing.

starling-murmuration

The Next Step

Want to learn how to switch to clean energy even if you live in an apartment? This article shares an ideal way for anyone to access clean energy. If you are inspired to learn about other ways you can increase your clean energy usage, check out the how-to pages: Easy, Intermediate, and Total Commitment.

At ButItJustMightWork, we strive to make your life more fun, more convenient and more affordable with clean energy.

Footnotes:

Swarms: The Personal Bus of the Future
  1. I literally just ate a cookie

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