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. Read the rest of this entry »


Is exempting petrol from the carbon tax such a big problem?

Is transport the main game? Source: Productivity Commission: Carbon emission policies in key economies

Given Australia already has a large excise tax on petrol, exempting automotive fuel bought by “families, tradies and small businesses” from the Gillard Government’s carbon tax is not the disaster some would have us believe.

Australia has a minority government so compromise was inevitable – two of the independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, wouldn’t be party to any increase in the price of fuel for their country constituents. It was either put a price on most but not all sources of greenhouse gas, or have the whole idea shot down yet again.

The exemption is expected to apply to petrol, diesel and LPG. Were the tax to apply to petrol, the impact would be modest – a $25/tonne tax is generally estimated to increase the price at the pump by around $0.06 per litre. The CSIRO calculates that even a $40/tonne tax would only raise the price of petrol by about ten cents per litre.

These amounts are much less than motorists already pay via the $0.38 per litre excise tax on petrol and diesel (there’s no excise on LPG). While it might have a “sin tax” dimension in relation to cigarettes and alcohol, in the case of automotive fuel the excise is not aimed at making motorists pay for roads or for the external costs of petrol – it’s just a convenient way of raising revenue (although it’s not as good as it used to be since John Howard abolished automatic indexation of the price in 2001).

Nevertheless the excise tax is a serious deterrent to driving. The Productivity Commission’s recent report, Carbon emission policies in key economies, calculates that “in 2009-10, fuel taxes reduced emissions from road transport by 8 to 23 percent in Australia at an average cost of $57-$59 per tonne of CO2-e”. Although not put in place with the purpose of abating emissions, the excise already has a much more significant effect on driving than any level of carbon price that’s been seriously touted in the political debate. Based on the CSIRO’s estimates, it could be argued its effect is equivalent to a carbon tax of over $100 per tonne (the relationship isn’t linear – there’re diminishing returns from a marginal increase as the fuel tax gets bigger).

Thus there’s a good argument that automotive fuel is one of the few areas where consumers already pay a high level of tax over and above the GST. Indeed, if it were so minded, the Government could’ve imposed the new carbon tax on petrol and diesel and simply provided an equal offsetting reduction in the level of the existing fuel excise tax. There wouldn’t be a lot of political or economic sense in that, but it illustrates the principle. Read the rest of this entry »


What costs society more – cars or public transport?

Cost per passenger km by mode in Sydney

This simple but extraordinary chart (see first graphic) is from a paper written last year by one of the country’s leading transport researchers, Dr Garry Glazebrook, of Sydney’s University of Technology.

In the paper, the author estimates the total cost of different transport modes, taking account of both private and social (i.e. external) costs. The costs are based on Sydney.

A number of interesting things about travel are evident from the chart, some of which are familiar and some which may surprise.

First, both private and public transport modes generate significant social costs. These costs are borne generally by society, “either in the form of subsidies (e.g. rail and bus subsidies from government, or hidden parking subsidies for car users) or in the form of externalities (including pollution, congestion, accidents, etc)”.

Second, although their composition is quite different, the social costs of private and public transport are essentially the same, at around 38c per passenger kilometre. One big difference of course is that subsidies for public transport are paid in actual dollars by government whereas the social costs of cars are largely an unpaid burden on others (primarily other road users). Read the rest of this entry »