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Tesla CEO Sets Sights on Self-Driving Public Transit

Elon Musk has revealed that he wants Tesla Motors to develop electric, connected, self-driving transit vehicles in the future.

Tesla Motors wants to automate public transit.

The Silicon Valley company, which has already introduced elements of automated driving into cars with its heavily scrutinized autopilot feature, released an update of its “master plan” in a July 20 blog post, revealing that it’s looking to create a wider variety of vehicles in the future. That includes bus-like vehicles, semi-trucks, compact sport utility vehicles and “a new kind of pickup truck.”

“As the technology matures, all Tesla vehicles will have the hardware necessary to be fully self-driving with fail-operational capability, meaning that any given system in the car could break and your car will still drive itself safely,” Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk wrote in the blog post.

Tesla is in the early stages of designing a high-density urban transit vehicle and could unveil it as soon as next year, he wrote.

The move puts Tesla in competition, in one way or another, with a few players in the emerging markets of electrified, automated transit. Companies have begun selling electric buses to cities, pitching huge cost savings over the life cycle of a single bus on both fuel use and maintenance needs. And Local Motors, a company known for 3-D-printing a car, debuted a self-driving shuttle earlier this year. The shuttle, called Olli, uses IBM Watson technology to take requests from customers — including where to drop them off.

Transit leaders have posited that self-driving technology could be a solution to transit’s first mile/last mile problem — that is, the problem of how customers get to transit vehicles at a pickup location, and then how they get to their destination from the nearest transit stop. Shuttles might exist to help people get to and from transit, or they might even replace transit itself by picking up and dropping off customers at requested locations instead of fixed stops.

In the post, Musk didn’t propose taking sides. Instead, he talked about how simple design tweaks could allow connected, self-driving shuttles to accommodate more people.

“Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses,” he wrote.

Musk also talked about automated mobility of a different kind: car sharing. If cars in the future are capable of driving themselves, he argued, then there’s no reason a vehicle should sit in a company parking lot all day while its owner works. Instead, the owner could use a phone app to enable sharing of the car, and at another person’s request, the vehicle could jet off on its own to pick up and drop off that passenger. That, in turn, might mean that the person requesting the car might not need to even own a car.

The implications of widespread automated driving for cities and society on the whole are potentially enormous. Recently, at the 2016 Automated Vehicle Symposium (AVS) in San Francisco, California Polytechnic State University ethics professor Patrick Lin said self-driving cars could alter the need for vehicle insurance. The concept could reduce the number of traffic tickets police are able to write, reducing city revenues for everything from law enforcement to fire departments. A drop in the number of car crashes might mean that fewer organ donors die, meaning that fewer organs will be available for people in need.

Focusing strictly on mobility, experts and thought leaders have fluctuated between open enthusiasm and something akin to dread when talking about self-driving vehicles. What if hackers were to gain the ability to control moving vehicles? As University of California, Berkeley engineering professor Joan Walker asked at AVS 2016, what if the advent of autonomy means a dramatic increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled per person, leading to permanently clogged roadways and an unstoppable rise in greenhouse gas emissions?

And on the positive side, what if coordinated driving means vastly increased efficiency on roadways, leading to the end of congestion? What if a reduced need for parking, or the ability of cars to park more closely together, opens up space for further compact development in cities? How much money might the world save if the rate of injury and death from traffic accidents drops precipitously?

In the blog post, Musk asked a different question: What happens if society doesn’t embrace electric, connected and automated transportation?

“The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That's what ‘sustainable’ means. It's not some silly, hippy thing — it matters for everyone,” Musk wrote. “By definition, we must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.