Google is creating a vehicle that drives itself. This isn’t really news, right? They’re testing it all over the place, and it’s on the roads in California, at least on highways and freeways (it’s my understanding Google employees are required to be hands-on on side streets and residential areas) and few would argue that the era of computer-driven vehicles is coming soon.


I was discussing this and other Internet of Everything subjects with a friend and we covered some interesting theories around what technology or society might look like in the next several years. Napkin math ensued and the results made my jaw drop.

Now…this is napkin math, literally. The numbers are from legitimate sources, but the extrapolation is pure speculation. Bear with me though, and let’s see where this goes.

There are approximately 247.9 million cars and light trucks in the US, based on a 2013 Experian Automotive market analysis. According to the US Department of Transportation (DoT), US drivers travel approximately 3 trillion miles annually. Also from the US DoT, vehicles travel at an average speed of 32 miles per hour.

I’d scan in a copy of the actual napkin but you wouldn’t be able to read it. (The one in this article is a recreation)

Here are our Napkin Math results: there are 10.7 million cars and/or light trucks traveling US roads at any given point in time. That’s about 4.3% efficiency. Roughly 96% of American vehicles are sitting idle and unused at any given time.

Flash back to 1998, my father was the Y2K Project Manager for a large utility company where I grew up. If you don’t know what Y2K was, please go quietly Google it and don’t make me feel any older than I already am by leaving comments asking what it is. Over the course of his involvement in readying his company for the unavoidable doomsday that would befall them on January 1st 2000, he learned and shared a number of interesting facts that came to light in organizations troubleshooting their potential Y2K issues.

One of these was focused on commercial airlines. Airplanes became a big concern as the Y2K doomsday criers all said they would suddenly fall from the sky at midnight because they had been programmed with 2-digit dates instead of 4. To fix them they needed to be on the ground, obviously but (and here is the interesting fact that my Dad shared with me) apparently something like 60% of the world’s aircraft were in the air at any given time and there wasn’t enough runway space to park them all.

There are many ways to look at that information and dissect it. My take is that commercial airlines are extremely efficient in how they schedule their aircraft. A plane sitting in a hangar is not generating any revenue, so maximize the time spent in the air, and minimize downtime. This makes perfect sense. Compare this to the 4.3% efficiency we have with cars in the US and you’ll start to see where I’m going with this.

Looking at some more current numbers, the FAA’s 2011 fleet report outlines there were 7185 commercial airliners in the United States. Data from a few different sources (Flightaware, FAA) suggests that on average, there are about 3500 of these in the air at any given time. That’s an estimated efficiency of 48.7%. Not perfect, but comparing that to vehicle efficiency, it’s excellent.

What if we could apply that same level of efficiency to our own vehicles?

Now, back to the conversation I was having with a friend around interconnected devices and the future. Imagine your car is now fully automated, and driver-less. You use it for your usual morning commute, but instead of sitting idle in a parking lot somewhere, it takes on other tasks throughout the day until you need it again to drive you home. There are any number of possibilities here, from ad-hoc taxi service, to deliveries, to driving other people to their respective places of work. Let’s assume that all of these vehicles are somehow interconnected and are managed by a centralized scheduling application, which is in turn connected to the smartphone in everyone’s pocket. Getting a ride somewhere becomes rather simple, doesn’t it? Pull out your phone, schedule it, done. Impromptu decision to go for dinner? Grab your phone, and the nearest available smart car arrives in minutes to pick you up. Efficiency skyrockets not only because the time on the road is maximized, but with the driver-less vehicle, speed is also increased, so the gains are two-fold.

If cars at this point essentially become communal, why would anyone even own their own car? Could they become a part of the core infrastructure of a city?

Okay, back to napkin math. Let’s see what would happen if we were able to achieve present-day airline efficiency with the future of interconnected devices and driver-less cars.

10.7 million vehicles (active and on the road) at 4.3% efficiency = approximately 248 million cars.

10.7 million vehicles (active and on the road) at 48.7% efficiency = approximately 22 million cars.

Just by increasing vehicle usage efficiency from 4.3% to 48.7% – we could (potentially) eliminate 226 million vehicles!

So many questions come to mind. What about the impact to the economy, auto manufacturers and jobs? Will people be willing to give up their ownership of a personal vehicle? Will we actually ever see mass adoption of a driver-less vehicle on our streets and roadways?

As more and more devices become interconnected, it’s difficult to know what the future will look like but the potential at least seems promising.

How do you see the Internet of Everything impacting your daily commute?


Rob Coote

System Analyst

Northern Alberta, Canada