Are driverless cars a game changer?

A common observation by many historians I’ve read goes like this: “they failed to understand just how important such-and-such was going to be in the future”. In many cases, “such-and-such” is a decisive technology that went unrecognized until it ended up completely changing the game.

Well, I think one technology that’s being grossly under-estimated today is Driverless Cars (DCs). If they could deliver fully on their promise, they’d have an enormous impact and bring a triple bottom line improvement to our cities – more efficient, more equitable and better for the environment.

There’s plenty of commentary around on driverless cars and I wrote at length on their potential as recently as May 31, in Are driverless cars coming?  In that piece, I discussed the current state of the technology and some of the formidable technical, social and legal obstacles to a driverless car fleet.

However as we know from the history of electricity, public sanitation, the car, the computer, inoculation, the pill and many other innovations, it’s very hard to deny an irresistible idea. Given enough time – say the 30 year horizon typical of current planning strategies – it’s possible the sheer weight of benefits DCs promise our cities will provide the motive force to overcome these obstacles.

The key potential benefits are:

  • Expansion in the effective capacity of the road system – at least double and perhaps eight times as much, with consequent savings in infrastructure provision
  • Time savings from faster journeys – technology can manage vehicle interactions and speeds more efficiently than human drivers (although there might be a trade-off with capacity here)
  • Almost complete elimination of serious injuries and fatalities associated with accidents
  • More productive use of in-vehicle journey time compared to conventional cars
  • Greater mobility for those who cannot drive e.g. the unlicensed, disabled, drunk

These are potentially enormous private and social benefits. In addition, the warrant for owning a private vehicle would be greatly reduced in a world of DCs. If a total or substantial shift to DC-sharing were achieved, the size of the urban car fleet would be reduced by an order of magnitude. There would be many benefits:

  • Lower environmental impact because many fewer vehicles would need to be manufactured
  • Less public and private space devoted to parking – this could greatly enhance the quality of public spaces and even residential streetscapes
  • Better matching of vehicle type to need, resulting in lower resource and environmental costs e.g. many DCs could be single seaters
  • Lower cost of travel due to eliminating need for vehicle ownership and removing the “status” component
  • Reduced noise, pollution, emissions and energy consumption by virtue of having a more efficient “standard” set of vehicles
  • The opportunity to rationalise the way travel is paid for by introducing a new pricing ‘paradigm’ – all standing and variable costs, including externalities, could be incorporated in a distance-related tariff (this isn’t intrinsic to DCs, but the changeover to a new paradigm provides the opportunity)

There are other potential strategic benefits too. Driverless cars could greatly reduce (though not eliminate) the need for public transport. This would offer a number of potential advantages:

  • Faster, safer and more private travel for those who currently use public transport – many travellers would enjoy very significant time savings
  • A higher proportion of the total cost of providing transport in the city could be borne directly by DC users rather than, as at present, by taxpayers

DCs aren’t just a replacement for the car, they’re a potential game-changer for the entire urban transport task.

There are also potential difficulties with DCs. The most debated are the technical challenges, the legal and political obstacles, and the likelihood of market acceptance. These are transition issues and if not managed carefully could seriously compromise the benefits that should come with DCs.

However as I’ve discussed them before, I won’t repeat myself now (which is not to diminish their importance). For the present I’ll simply argue that DCs have to be seen as a 30 year project. Assuming they were introduced with the aforementioned technical, social and legal issues resolved, there would still be some residual issues, such as:

  • By increasing the attractiveness of travel relative to public transport, DCs could greatly increase the demand for subsidised travel from eligible groups, with the Government required to carry the additional cost
  • By lowering the cost of travel (particularly the time involved), DCs could increase the range of places where people could live and work i.e. greater sprawl. However this might not be as much of an issue if DCs reduce the transport problems associated with sprawl
  • It might not prove practical to contain all or most of the cost of introducing DCs to travellers. The cost imposed on government for necessary infrastructure might be high. Of course, the cost to government of business as usual would also have to be taken into account, as would the potentially huge productivity benefit of DCs

At this time, the focus should be on the challenges and difficulties of transitioning to a driverless society. However that shouldn’t prevent the potential of the technology from being factored into current planning, particularly for infrastructure that has a long life. For example, what is the warrant for the proposed East-West road tunnel in a world of DCs?

DCs could have a dramatic effect on the way we plan our cities – if they happen as I expect they will, they’ll literally be a game changer. My intuition is they’re coming and it’ll be well within the sorts of time horizons customarily adopted for infrastructure planning. I hope historians don’t look back and say we under-estimated their impact.


21 Comments on “Are driverless cars a game changer?”

  1. Oz says:

    Driverless transport is they way of the future, whether it be for freight or people transported by rail or road. Two hundred years ago much of our transport of energy and information was by transport operated by people. Today it is nearly all by cable and pipeline, Similarly other freight tasks will be handled by driverless technonology in the future. Many rail systems are in reality now driverless.

  2. Alan Parker says:

    The way of the future is light electric vehicles (LEVs) because they overcome the worlds major resource, environmental and climatic constraints, however four wheeled driverless hybrid and electric cars may be on automatic control but not for the two wheeled LEVs which are clean.

    • Alan Davies says:

      That’s an interesting point. I imagine a two wheeler is always going to be lighter than a single seat autonomous four wheeler. However the difference could be very small and, if both use sustainable fuels, might be of little account. OTOH, a multiple seat autonomous vehicle with all seats occupied will probably be more efficient per person than a single passenger two wheeler.

      More significantly, it might be unworkable to have human controlled two wheelers (or four wheelers for that matter) mixing it with fully autonomous vehicles.

  3. Michael says:

    Your enthusiasm for driverless cars always brings a smile to my face. Your argument that they will arrive eventually and that they should be thought about is valid. I think you are underestimating the challenges that this technology will face in widespread adoption – just as voice command systems have taken a lot longer to become reality then was expected. The effect DC’s have on society will certainly be interesting but I imagine much more difficult to predict than you imagine. The surge in popularity of SUV’s was easy to predict in hindsight but I would challenge anyone to find anyone who predicted it in advance.
    Some of the changes you predict such as “eliminating need for vehicle ownership and removing the “status” component” have nothing particularly to do with cars being driverless. The concept of rental cars exist already and haven’t eliminated “status”.
    Reducing energy use is another aspect that has nothing much to do with DC technology and there is no real evidence to suggest that this will be the outcome. The DC might open up new entertainment options to occupants and end up just as big if not bigger than existing cars trading safety barriers for enhanced comfort and space. Car size could be regulated already as can vehicle weight and fuel consumption but it isn’t very effective. I could go on in this vain ad infinitum but I will spare you 😉

    • Alan Davies says:

      Actually, rather than ‘predicting’ I was endeavouring to summarise the benefits we’d potentially reap if we could overcome the very real challenges of the transition to driverless cars (I hope I don’t sound too naively optimistic – that’s why I’ve linked to my original piece on this subject and why I’m putting a 30 year time frame on the transition).

      On the question of ownership, I think the logic goes like this: If vehicles can drive themselves to your door on demand to pick you up, there’s not much of a practical case for actually owning one anymore (and the fact that you don’t actually drive them makes them just another white good like a washing machine, anyway). There’s therefore a very compelling case for sharing vehicles, because you can save a very substantial amount of money on the standing costs (if washing machines cost $20,000+ and there was a practical way to do it, I reckon we’d share them too). So I think there’s a logical connection there.

      The main gains in lower energy use / environmental impact follow directly from the smaller size of the vehicle fleet which, in turn, is a direct result of sharing, as discussed above. There are additional energy gains from matching the size of the vehicle to the number of passengers, which again is directly a function of sharing vehicles.

      Some of these objectives could indeed be pursued in other ways, but the most important ones couldn’t be pursued as effectively e.g. greater road capacity, faster travel times, reduced traffic accidents.

      However looking back over the post, I have to concede that I am bullish about driverless cars (which is surprising because I’ve just read Daniel Kahneman on the danger of intuitive predictions!).

      • Michael says:

        You deserve credit as usual for inserting lots of caveats. The effects DC’S might depend on how the technology is introduced. If the technology is perfected quickly and cheaply then you may see a rapid introduction with a change in road rules etc, but if the technology is introduced piecemeal as extensions to current driver assist technologies, beginning in luxury cars first before trickling down to all cars up to a decade later then it might morph into other things. That’s what made me think of entertainment being an aspect that might be a selling point for the technology rather than the planners dreams of solving congestion problems, which to my pessimistic brain seem oversold anyway. One thing is fairly certain though, if the technological problems are solved then it will be pretty impossible to stop it from happening. There are potential benefits such as universal access and safety but I don’t think these are inherent to the technology, but instead depend on the culture and the trade offs that are made, after all we could have lower road tolls already if that was a higher priority than convenience.

        There already exist an analog to DC’s in terms of ownership – taxis. In places like Singapore and Hong Kong where the cost of car ownership is high, some people who could afford cars choose to forgo then and depend on taxis, although it would seem less people are in this category than people who choose to own their own car. This is however in an environment where public transport is serving the majority of trips already.

  4. Daniel says:

    Alan, the benefits of driver-less cars (albeit grade separated) have been touted for over 50 years. Yet, despite a recent resurgence (see, they’re hardly ubiquitous and there are a lot of potentially valid criticisms.

    Non grade separated driver-less cars would be vastly cheaper, but then you have to solve the pedestrian problem. My personal opinion is that driver-less cars will not be able to mingle with pedestrians without true artificial intelligence which is probably a lot more than thirty years away. Maybe they’ll catch on in LA where I’m led to believe there are no pedestrians.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Dealing with pedestrians will be hard. You might be right, but then again, 30 years is a long time. Compare 1981 with today (we still used vinyl LPs then and there weren’t even video recorders!).

  5. Alan single person driverless cars sound like a great idea especially for people who don’t mind a drink. ( I’ve played in Rock & Roll bands for 35 years so go figure). They seem to really tickle your fancy as well and its great to have some kind of dream project. I’m guessing that in yesteryear you were a fan of the Jetsons, whereas I preferred the Flintstones which leads to a different route to the same conclusion.

    As you pointed out in your first article on DCs the willingness of politicians to get going on them is likely to be inhibited by fear of safety issues. They are likely to be guided with formal advice from Road Traffic Authorities and Australian Design Rules.

    In fact there is no technological impediment for rapid uptake of single person cars of much higher environmental and social value than our current paradigm. Have a look at this picture, 9 from the bottom Its basically a 4 wheel e-bike and I’m supposing that they could be manufactured and sold cheaply ($2,000-$3,000) fitted with all weather fairings and potenially foldable at no more than 50 kilos of weight. But how would RTAs and ADRs effect an introduction of this kind of vehicle? Its a rhetorical question of course.

    But even these are still “cars” and whilst many direct costs would be negated, the majority of externalities still exist in this vision. We would only slow urban sprawl, not halt it and undereported liabilities such as the cost of “free” parking would still exist, exactly as with the DC idea. See here or here…/Studies/Effective_Speeds.pdf for an Australian perspective on such externalities.

    If you accept the data as an example outlined in those kinds of analysis then a more optimal solution is 2 wheeled and as the venerable Alan Parker points out in above comments, for Australia that is with electric power assist due to the fact that urban planning in Australia for the last 50 years or more has been based on a car mentality.

    However, a DC option, perhaps 2 seater with a solar powered electric fridge big enough for a six pack definately would be hard to resist. The second seat of course is to take advantage of a random opportunity to meet a potential requirement to have a responsible person as a failsafe.

    Quick update. The author of the Effect Speeds analysis Paul Tranter from ADFA (Australian defence force academy) above has just sent me a link to a more recent paper see

  6. In actual fact Alan, plenty of people still use vinyl (in fact vinyl sales have been increasing over the past decade) and VHS had been introduced roughly 5 years before and is still used by some today: and here lies one of the biggest problems with your 30 year transition.

    Lots of people own cars already. Lots of people drive cars for decades before getting rid of them. Lots of people enjoy driving cars and will fight tooth and nail to retain the right to do so. If conventional cars* (CC) are still on the road many of the benefits you have outlined will be lessened considerably. I don’t believe you could double the capacity of the road fleet if DC must share the road with CC, unless there was legislation to force owners of CC to upgrade their cars with brake and engine sensors and wireless equipment, etc that can communicate with DC, even then gains are not going to be the same as a fleet of DC only. The same can be said of the time savings and the elimination of accidents. You’ve pointed out this problem in your response to Alan Parker, but haven’t mentioned it at all in your post. Unfortunately I think it is too greater point to omit. However there are other problems I also don’t see easy fixes for.

    I don’t believe that DC are going to suddenly end the want for owning a private vehicle. Nor do I believe that car manufacturers will silently agree that it would be a good idea to have “a more efficient “standard” set of vehicles”, rather than continuing to pump out the latest designs to sell to hoards of consumers. There is a lot of money to be made in selling cars this way and as we all know when money talks, legislators tend to listen. The idea that status would no longer play a part is a complete fallacy, even in the unlikely event of legislation being passed to prevent people from owning private vehicles you could still bet that there would be different classes of DC to be hired and that some would carry a lot more status than others.

    All in all, I think their are a lot of benefits to DC technology, I also believe that eventually they’ll be in a lot of places, but I think the transition will be a lot longer than 30 years. Who knows, there could even be other factors that throw the whole conversation out of whack, perhaps one or another piece of technology the world has been waiting on for decades will finally come of age, rendering DC like the Minidisc in the age of mp3s.

    *by conventional I simply mean they require a driver

    • Michael says:

      Don’t forget the matrix 😀

    • Alan Davies says:

      Julian, the fact that vinyl is making a comeback today in the enthusiast market is not relevant – my point was that you could only buy vinyl (or tape) in 1981. Yes, you could get VCRs in Australia in 1981 but only 3% of Australian households had them because they were still frightfully expensive and the range of titles limited. They weren’t mass market at that time – Video-Ezy didn’t start until 1983 and Blockbuster until 1985 in the US.

      • It is relevant though Alan. My point was that there are enthusiasts out there. They will want to keep driving in 30, 40 or even 50 years time. Either the Government would be forced to ban enthusiasts from driving on “normal” roads, or there would have to be concessions about how DC operate.

  7. Simon says:

    The big reason why people don’t ride bikes for transport is fear of bad drivers. With driverless cars, this fear will go. Driverless cars will reliably follow the road rules, respecting cyclists right to the road, and wholly changing lanes in order to pass them, as the law requires.

    This could prompt a big increase in the number of people riding. I already ride everywhere, but I can imagine my less bold friends and family accompanying me once they realise that they can travel at a relaxed 15km/h in the middle of the lane, without the stress and danger caused by road-ragers who think there’s something wrong with a cyclist travelling in the middle of the lane at a relaxed speed.

    Pedestrians will also have a better time – when walking along a major street they’ll be able to cross minor streets without having to worry about turning cars, as the pedestrians have the right of way in this situation.

    The common thing here is that cyclists and pedestrians currently have the law on their side, and it is only driver ignorance and poor driver attitudes that prevent cyclists and pedestrians having a much better deal on the streets. When we take the drivers out of the equation, cars will become calmed, and the streets will be safe for cyclists and pedestrians. Driverless cars are likely to create a road system that makes car-travel slower and less convenient than currently, while boosting walking and cycling.

    Even in a situation where not all cars are driverless, the behaviour of the driverless cars will have a calming and educative effect on the rest of the motorised traffic.

    If driverless cars can’t deal with pedestrians and cyclists then they won’t be allowed on the streets.

    • John Burke says:

      Well said Simon DCs might well be a big thing. But I can’t help but think that if you want a real game changer then CDs -carless drivers would be a more dynamic change.
      Google seems to think that carless drivers are just careless drivers though if you try a search. I presume it represents a majority view.

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      Simon, your last sentence is the most important. “If driverless cars can’t deal with pedestrians and cyclists they won’t be allowed on the roads.” And if they can deal with cyclists and pedestrians, then the streets will return to the late Victorian times – witness the scenes of old Melbourne in 1910, see:

      Pedestrians will take control of the streets. Cyclists will happily ride at 15 km/h in the middle of the traffic lane/lanes. Cars will be limited to 15 km/h at best, 6 km/h if they are lucky in pedestrian filled areas.

      Even if you can get the pedestrians off the roads, and get the cyclists confined to a single narrow lane, then you are still restricted by safety requirements. Currently drivers can drive in an unsafe manner. They can close up to the car in front, tailgating, reckoning that the chance of the car in front coming to a sudden – near instantaneous – stop is low, so low as not to be worried about. Hence the pile ups when the car in front actually does that. When we have driverless cars, that will not be available. It will be railway rules – every car will have to drive at such a speed and with such a space in front of it that it will be able to safely stop before hitting the car in front it that car comes to an instantaneous stop. This means that the capacity of roads will be greatly reduced. Cars will not be able to exit parking places on roads unless there is a completely safe space for them to enter between other vehicles. So a passenger could unhappily sit waiting for the end of the peak hour till there is a break – or the traffic lights turn red behind and create a space.

      This is exactly the problem that PRT – a system of small passenger vehicles on segregated beamways faces – it cannot be done SAFELY at a REASONABLE SPEED and still have a HIGH CAPACITY. The three considerations, safety, high speed, and high capacity are incompatible.

      Of your key benefits, the only valid and certain one is the benefits for drunks, the incapacitated, and the unlicensed. As safety will be the prime determinant, road capacity will be reduced, journey speeds will be reduced – how much? there is, as you say, a trade off here. Damage and injuries will become zero – they have to be else the cars will not be permitted. Journey time may become more productive, perhaps.

      The other benefits you list? They are either not due to DCs or only obtainable with legislation. For example, you suggest there will be “Less public and private space devoted to parking”. Not so. If cars bring people into towns they will either have to be parked as at present, or sent out again to the outskirts. So your 25 km journey in becomes a 50 km round trip for the car, the same in the evening. Efficient? No. Legislation can remove the car parks, you have to use public transport, roads are clear of all other vehicles, trams and buses can operate to their full capability. Not a benefit of DCs, but quite desirable.

      • Michael says:

        Those are some really good points. Drivers, pedestrians and bikes are involved in subtle visual negotiations for right of way. It’s hard to see how this could happen with driverless cars. On the other hand DC’s will be more studious in staying out of “keep clear” zones. Judging from history, when cars, bikes and pedestrians compete cars usually win. Maybe DC’s will lead to a radical redesign of urban roads leading to pedestrians and bikes being completely seperated.

  8. Happy says:

    Alan, thank you for including a link to the It’s Time clip. Marriage might not be something that I choose, but at least I have a choice. It’s time for change and the more people that are thinking about this issue, the more likely it is that the change will happen.

  9. wilful says:

    driverless cars will take a lot longer to solve issues in the country. A person on a bush block isn’t going to wait half an hour for a remotely requested car to turn up. And a farmer will require a car with very sophisticated controls to deal with muddy hilly paddocks and driving in a mob of sheep. But these aren’t insurmountable issues, I’m sure there will be significant private ownership for a long time to come, and a voice controlled car would in fact reduce the workload for a farmer.

  10. rodney says:

    I love the idea of DCs. I remember reading somewhere that driverless cars would make Jeremy Clarkson quite redundant.

    There is another “anti-car-driver” technology which isn’t game-changing but it could really help tame the car. It is automatic number plate recognition. Computers have become fast enough to recognise number plates in real time. This is useful for speed regulation and road pricing.

    Here is an example of such a device:

    The disadvantage of these systems is that you lose your privacy. Whoever runs the DC hire system or the speed/toll camera system knows who you are and where you’re going. Currently you can take a taxi anonymously or you can drive somewhere and the traffic cameras probably haven’t got high enough resolution to record your number plate.

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