Cars & traffic

Mar 13, 2018

Driverless cars: will public transport be a winner?

The prospect of autonomous vehicles causes worry but they might provide public and shared modes of transport with a big boost in competitiveness relative to private vehicles

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

General Motor’s driverless car- no manual controls for steering, braking or accelerating

When ABC  TV’s Catalyst program looked at autonomous vehicles last year (Sit back, relax; the dawn of the driverless car), presenter Nell Schofield reminded us that while “the motor car has shrunk the world (and) increased personal freedom”, it’s also “poisoned the air we breathe and killed us in far more straight-forward ways”.

But autonomous cars could change all that. “Soon”, she says, “we will be in a position to have our automotive cake and eat it”. But then again maybe not; she goes on to ask, “could we actually be walking into a nightmare”?

There’s a long list of potential benefits commonly attributed to autonomous vehicles. It’s said they’ll enable vehicles to be lighter and more efficient; there’ll be virtually no crashes; they’ll provide mobility to those who can’t drive; time spent travelling will be used in more productive ways; and the size of the vehicle fleet will be much smaller, with an associated decrease in the demand for parking.

On the other hand, there’s a widespread fear they’ll make transport less burdensome and hence induce us to travel further and more frequently, leading to increased traffic congestion and more sprawling cities. Excessive optimism about their potential might also lead to under-investment in public transport.

We can be very confident autonomous vehicles will happen. They’re a compelling idea, with not only the possibility of huge social benefits in the transport of both freight and people, but also the prospect of enormous profits for risk-takers. The potential to reduce operating costs, increase safety, and enable travelling time to be used more productively and more safely makes it an irresistible technology.

But I doubt it will happen anywhere near as fast as the industry spruikers claim. There’s still uncertainty around how fast the technology will develop, although it doesn’t seem like that will be the limiting factor. I expect there’ll be isolated early implementations, but widespread adoption will be hampered by the transition from human controlled to autonomous vehicles; most of the potential benefits of the new technology won’t be realised until the vehicle fleet is close to 100% autonomous.

That will likely take some decades to fully resolve. While self-driving vehicles are a compelling idea and will ultimately prevail, they’re not as revolutionary a change as (say) the first trains or the first private cars were back in the nineteenth century. They won’t sweep away all the impediments to full implementation anywhere near as quickly or as thoroughly as those earlier technologies did. That’s mainly because the leap from walking to travelling on a smoky train was an order of magnitude larger than the step up from driving yourself to motoring from the back seat.

I expect the first applications will be for freight and public transport, rather than cars, because these modes mostly use a relatively small number of fixed routes e.g. from motorways to collector roads. The predictability of the immediate environment can be more readily controlled on these routes and hence the problems of mixing with legacy human-controlled vehicles can be managed more effectively.

Indeed, public transport might well enjoy a “golden era” during the transition period. Significantly lower operating costs could open the door to much higher route densities, more frequent services, and a flourishing of innovative feeder services, ennabling it to compete more effectively with private vehicles than at present. While private vehicles – both autonomous and human controlled – struggle in congested areas, it could be the heyday of buses and light rail.

The key is to take road space away from private vehicles and dedicate it for the exclusive use of public transport so that it’s insulated from most of the delay associated with traffic congestion. The advantage gained during the transition might prove lasting if cities continue to grow and get denser. Public transport might gain more from automation than private transport.

When the world of fully autonomous vehicles arrives, the opportunity to reform road pricing as well as reduce the amount of urban space devoted to parking could be key benefits. Neither of these are intrinsic to the technology (we could implement them now!), but it provides the opening for change.

In particular, the additional travel likely to be induced by automation could be mitigated if the existing model of private ownership of cars were replaced by a sharing model akin to the way taxis currently operate:

  • Driverless vehicles could only be “rented” for exclusive use as needed; this would reduce the size of the fleet and the number of parking spaces required
  • Travel is paid for by the kilometre/hour and weighted by the level of congestion; this would moderate usage by making the cost apparent.

Realising the potential of autonomous vehicles requires action now to mould public expectations of what a driverless world should look like. The business-as-usual scenario of private ownership of vehicles will otherwise undermine most of the social benefits of the technology.

Another implication of 100% automation could be that the distinction between public and private forms of transport will become much hazier or even disappear. Travellers should be able to better match their travel needs against transport options, selecting their mode of travel from among different size vehicles, ownership structures, and passenger sharing options.

Yet the most significant social and economic changes wrought by the new technology are likely to take place many decades after full implementation is achieved and might be only dimly understood now, if at all. That’s the established pattern with most new technologies, from the electric light to the oral contraceptive. The largest impacts result from combining with other technological and social changes, usually decades after the first implementation. The full benefits often rely on the way we do things “catching up” with the potential offered by the technology e.g. business processes.

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9 thoughts on “Driverless cars: will public transport be a winner?

  1. Shaun Phillips

    Driver-less vehicles will be the future for all the reasons mentioned. However driver-less vehicles and the reduction in privately owned cars are two totally different discussions. So we should not use the benefits of one (e.g. reduced parking lots) to justify the advent of the other.
    Also, overseas studies have shown that even 5% of cars being driver-less can improve traffic flow significantly. Driver-less cars do not start/stop in congestion the way humans do. Driver-less cars are not continually changing lanes the way humans do.

  2. Steve H

    I suspect that driverless cars will be bad for public transport use. People take public transport because it’s cheaper and more convenient than driving (traffic, parking, tolls) or because they’re not able to drive (no licensed, disability). Both these reasons are mitigated by driverless cars. Congestion will get worse with more vehicles on the road but will people really care since they’ll be free to do other things.

  3. George

    I like that the majority of comments posted so far are most likely from white, old, angry males #yawn

  4. Tony

    The gigantic risk is that human travel will be controlled by a few private for profit mega companies.
    The Sunday drive will exist no more. Many other simple joys will be decimated.
    Yes, transport needs solutions, but it doesn’t need wealth to continue to concentrate at the top. This is all that driverless cars will achieve. A few more uber wealthy, pun intended, and a lot more poor people.

    1. Tom the first and best

      That is a ridiculously pessimistic attitude towards autonomous cars.

      Walking and cycling are not going to be banned or controlled by a few major corporations. There will still be public transport, most likely state/local government controlled and thus having low to no corporate control. There will still be private car ownership, talk of banning that is dreaming. There will likely be many autonomous car hire companies, if that is a major mode of travel, creating competition to keep prices down.

      Wealth distribution is more about tax policy, competition policy and industrial relations policy than automation. Automation does not destroy the potential for full employment, it only changes what the jobs are in full employment times.

  5. Ruv Draba

    With each vehicle being only a modest capital outlay, the key value in the new technology is in maximising capacity utilisation, and that’s an Information Technology problem we’ve already solved. It’s easy to envision an Uber-like company taking on ‘partners’ to provide the fleet capital and then rent-seeking on the fares at the owner’s cost while returning a low per-fare dividend, and divesting the operational costs back to the owner (much as old-school cab companies do already.)

    The cost of capital in that approach will beat borrowing from a bank, and there’ll be plenty of investors, so this will be a successful approach. Because they already have the enabling connection-technology, you can expect Uber, Lyft and similar to invest early and undercut their existing gig-economy drivers. Because they already have market penetration, you can also expect strong commercial pressure on private car-owners from rapid saturation, with a lower cost of using gig-cars coupled with a spiralling cost of insuring private, you-drive vehicles through a depletion of the owner-driver insurance market.

    I think that’s the future. The only thing that will slow it will be legislation, and there’ll be both commercial and political pressure on state and territory governments to adopt, because of how much it’ll reduce congestion (initially) and thus reduce pressure to invest in expensive, slow-returning infrastructure projects. So in the cities at least, and populous regional centres, it will probably change quickly.

    My conclusion: I broadly agree with Alan, except about the speed of adoption, and the potential early benefits to public transport. I think it’ll move too quickly for most centres to see them: if they happen it’ll be in the longer term, but I think that will require some strategic civic planning that most places won’t be capable of.

    1. Tom the first and best

      If autonomous cars reduce the accident rate, that will put downward pressure on the premiums of human driven cars because accidents involving other vehicles are a significant proportion of payouts.

      Insurance costs would also have to rise steeply to be a factor in decreasing private human-driver car operation.

      Private autonomous car ownership is likely to have reasonable insurance costs, reducing the shift to hire vehicles.

      Autonomous cars will increase counter-peak congestion because there will be a significantly higher proportion of vehicles making return trips to either pick up further rides (hire vehicles and private vehicles shared among multiple household members) or to find unmetered available street parking in otherwise low parking demand areas or return home (private vehicles and hire vehicles at times of reducing travel demand, like the end of peak hour).

      Any significant increase in long distance commuting through regional and rural areas will likely increase demand for bypasses for town on major roads.

  6. Tom the first and best

    I agree that PT and freight are likely to benefit from autonomous vehicles before private personal transport. Taxis are also likely to switch over before private cars.

    I see little sign of potential for politicians to actually ban private ownership of autonomous cars. For the politicians it is lots of political pain for theoretical long term gain.

    The car industry would likely campaign against it, they are about selling cars (autonomous or otherwise).

    A taxi-style rental model is of far less use outside cities, especially in remote areas, so people with regular transport needs outside cities are will mostly oppose it.

    People wishing to store things in their vehicles while they are not in them are also disadvantaged by a taxi-style model.

    Banning private autonomous vehicles is also likely to be opposed by the individualist views of ordinary right-wing and centre voters in Australia in a way that the Coalition and other right-wing parties (here and around the world) are likely to side with by opposing and/or repealing such bans. Supporting such bans would likely make them look too corporatist for many of their voters.

    Banning private autonomous vehicles, except maybe in some dense inner-cities, is not politically feasible.

    However parking in areas where parking costs are high will go down because private autonomous vehicle users will in many cases send their vehicles to free parking locations.

  7. Horst (Oz) Kayak

    There is little doubt that intelligent technology (IT) and AV have the potential to reduce the number of private cars travelling in the transport system. PT system capacity and service optimization increases lend themselves to advances in IT and AV applications.
    Who are the main “renters” delaying the changes? Who are the people who comprise the main interest and lobby groups against applying IT and AV to PT to benefit our society?

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