Driverless cars will reduce the cost of travel by allowing passengers to use the time in more productive ways (source: The Economist via amor mundi)

A world of autonomous vehicles promises many benefits, including the virtual elimination of accidents, the opportunity to use travel time in more productive ways, and at least a doubling in the number of vehicles the existing road system can accommodate.

Most of the commonly cited potential benefits relate directly to the road system. There’s less discussion about the potential consequences of a fully driverless world in terms of the wider impact.

Here’s my speculation on what some of the possible implications might be in the event that autonomous vehicles fully replace human-controlled vehicles.

Industry changes

I can say with confidence that the job of ‘driver’ will be redundant. Relatively unskilled work driving taxis, delivery vans, trucks, and buses will disappear.

With close to zero road casualties – both major and minor – many jobs in ancillary industries like health, insurance, crash repair and policing won’t be needed.

A smaller total fleet size, lighter vehicles and higher road utilisation will likely reduce jobs in vehicle manufacturing and servicing as well as in road construction and maintenance.

These losses should be offset to some extent by jobs generated by more travel to activities (see below) and by avoided casualties. I expect there’ll be jobs in industries offering services and products to fill the in-vehicle time released from driving and now available for other purposes.

Land use changes

Time is the largest cost of travel; autonomous vehicles should make private travel dramatically cheaper by reducing the opportunity cost of driving. Rather than devoting all their attention to controlling the vehicle, drivers will be able to use in-vehicle time for productive purposes e.g. work, sleep. The design of vehicles will adapt to the new opportunities.

This will go beyond the activities that train and bus passengers can currently perform because occupants of an autonomous vehicle will be able to use the greater privacy and space for activities that aren’t feasible (or in some cases permissible) on public transport.

One consequence is that some people will choose to live further from key destinations e.g. they’ll live further from the city centre or they’ll take jobs further from home. Cities will become more dispersed, with more emphasis on commuting from country centres.

If travel costs are low, more firms might join or form clusters so they can benefit from agglomeration economies. In that event, the CBD and suburban job centres should get bigger while many jobs in dispersed suburban locations (the majority in Melbourne) should migrate to suburban centres.

There might also be a greater tendency for activity centres to specialise in only one or two industries. Rather than suffer the downsides of agglomeration associated with large diversified centres (e.g. congestion, higher rents), firms might selectively co-locate with other firms in complementary industries.

More travel

A key promise of autonomous vehicles is that they’ll extract more capacity from the existing road system. Some claim capacity will increase up to eightfold, but most think a doubling is more plausible.

Given other factors that have reduced per capita travel over the last eight years or so, the additional capacity released by driverless cars might be enough to put off new road construction for the foreseeable future.

The counter view is that if roads are less congested there should be more travel due to induced demand. People who can’t drive at present – like children and the disabled – will be able to make trips they don’t make at present.

Another factor that could increase travel is the liklihood that autonomous vehicles will be used as delivery vans. They’ll be sent empty to pick up goods from outlets developed specifically to serve cars without human intervention.

This could lead to more trips that currently aren’t made (“I can’t be bothered”) and to the deterioration of disciplines like trip chaining. People might dispatch a car for multiple trips rather than make the effort to get everything in the one journey.

A possible corollary is that the weakening in the benefits of complementary shopping for goods will lessen the attractiveness of enclosed shopping centres (malls); strip centres that rely more on services should be less affected.

Public transport

High capacity passenger systems will still be necessary to provide access to dense locations where autonomous vehicles would be handicapped by congestion. Greater concentration of activities in centres should reinforce the continuing need for public transport.

Autonomous vehicles should improve public transport by replacing circuitous feeder buses; in some cases they might also replace walking to local stops.

The sophisticated technology required for driverless cars could find new applications in public transport. Hybrid driverless vehicles could collect passengers from street stops (like a bus) and use shared rail lines to provide a relatively fast trip over longer distances (like a train, albeit a small one).

Many of the technical problems autonomous vehicles have to overcome would be simplified on a rail line, enabling a very large increase in capacity. Hybrid vehicles would still be limited by the speed of the fastest stopper though unless express tracks were built.

Actions

The liklihood of greater sprawl is one of the key implications of universal use of autonomous vehicles. As I’ve noted before, that might not necessarily be all bad news: if access to driverless cars is universal; if the size of the vehicle fleet is much smaller than at present; if cars are vastly more fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly and cheaper to operate; then the negative implications of sprawl would be significantly reduced.

Nevertheless, policy-makers concerned about other impacts of sprawl could discourage outward expansion and regional travel by putting a price on road space. That would also make people more conscious of using autonomous vehicles for low value (i.e. unnecessary) trips.

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