"The biggest problem is that robotaxis require infrastructure investments and changes to create a reliable foundation," says Thilo Koslowski, an auto industry analyst at Gartner, who says U.S. consumers are in favor of autonomous cars. "Ideally, autonomous vehicles will be connected 24/7 with traffic management networks to optimize routing and congestion levels. These cars can also function as traffic probes to collect speed and congestion information."
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking some initial steps toward building more-connected roadways. It will conduct a yearlong test of vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology in Ann Arbor, Mich., starting this fall. Test cars will connect to each other and to the road to be alerted to imminent crash situations, construction zones and more. The use of such wireless communications systems could lead to an 80 percent reduction in accidents, according to the NHTSA.
While the benefits of robotic public transit seem obvious, there are also some equally obvious concerns, including liability. Aarjav Trivedi, the COO of RideCell, an Atlanta-based automated fleet-management company, says there are many legal questions about who would be at fault in a collision between a robotaxi and another car, how autonomous vehicles will be insured, and even how a city will deal with the eventual problem of labor disputes for those who are employed by the city's official cab companies.
Hernandez estimates that semi-autonomous cars that do much of their own steering on highways could appear in 10 years, but full autonomous driving is at least 20 years away -- which should give governments time to work on questions of liability and other concerns as they build the infrastructure to support driverless cars.
Solar municipal power
Masdar City is "carbon neutral" in that it does not draw energy from the regional power grid, and instead generates all of its own electricity from solar power, at least for now. (As the city grows, there will be an increased need to use energy that is not generated within the city limits, but officials say the energy will still come from renewable sources.)
In a small municipality, solar-only is a feasible power option, but what if you had to provide electricity for a metropolis the size of Los Angeles?
Today, alternative energy sources typically augment the electricity produced by coal and natural gas power plants, according to Alfonso Velosa, an analyst at Gartner. But he says companies such as Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy are developing new technologies to make solar power collection more viable.
While most solar power in the United States is currently generated by rooftop panels that provide direct power for appliances and for heating and air conditioning units (called distributed solar), BrightSource uses centralized solar plants to store and then transport energy using electrical transmission lines, says Keely Wachs, a BrightSource spokesman.
The energy company broke ground in the California desert for its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in October 2010. The massive solar plant will use about 170,000 mirrors to capture the sun's energy. Software tracks the position of the mirrors and makes fine adjustments to each mirror for the best power draw.