Are driverless cars a game changer?Posted: November 30, 2011
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.