To hear futurists like Elon Musk tell it, the future of transportation is self-driving cars. Musk’s company, Tesla, is the current name to watch in that space. Tesla’s “autopilot” feature allows their vehicles to drive themselves on highways, though the company is adamant that the driver needs to keep their eyes on the road in case the autopilot doesn’t see something like a stopped semi-truck.
The future of self-driving cars isn’t exactly set in stone, however. In fact, many of Musk’s opponents contend that he, and others like him, are being too overzealous in their pursuit of automobiles that drive themselves. Instead, some argue, scientists should be channeling their energy into public transportation solutions that use similar technology. That’s what Florence, Italy, has done.
Three smart trams have been installed in the Italian city of Florence, using similar technology to that seen on self-driving cars. Detection hardware like LIDAR, which tells the distance from objects, and cameras hooked up to recognition software allow the trams to perceive their surroundings. The project is part of the EU-funded “ELASTIC” initiative, which seeks to modernize European cities and lay the groundwork for tomorrow’s smart cities.
The project is aimed at both simplifying public transportation and reducing pollution. Electric-powered vehicles have been a goal of environmentalists for some time, but not in quite the same way as car manufacturers would like to hear. Many activists speak about the need for electric-powered public transportation.
The average American city was built with cars in mind. The suburbs are miles from urban centers, and walking from your house to work is usually unthinkable in a big American city. Huge swaths of city property are earmarked for parking for cars. In Chicago, for instance, the iconic Lake Shore Drive dominates the waterfront, leaving what could be a great park for residents as a region strictly for people in their own automobiles.
Environmentalists often view the switch to electric cars as helpful but as a stopgap measure. Ideally, some argue, public transportation could take away most of the need for personal vehicles altogether.
Florence’s electric trams are just a prototype of the sort of self-driving, electricity-powered public transportation that could become commonplace in every big city in the next decade. By cutting down on the need for cars, both conventional and electric, the project hopes to make cities more sustainable, easier to navigate, and more modern. Don’t be late to catch this tram!