Saturday, 31 May 2014

Driverless cars. Or why we shouldn't waste our money on high speed rail.


I know I'm a bit grumpy sometimes but I still take the view that the essential limitation of public transport is that is takes you from one place where you don't want to be to another place you don't want to be. Unless you're a trainspotter. And the bigger the distance travelled the further those unwanted start and finish points are from where we want to be. The high speed railway may whizz us from Manchester to London in a breath but for 99% of travellers they don't want to go to Euston station which means an onwards journey, one that could take as long as the journey in the lovely fast train.

The plus side of public transport is that you don't have to drive the train, plane or bus and can sit back and admire the view (or, if you'd rather, get on with writing your novel, catching up with TV or even doing some work). So travel is less stressful, at least until you need to lug your bag across three platforms and up two sets of escalators and then cram yourself onto an overcrowded tube train filled with people who appear to be considering murdering you for having a large bag. And let's not imagine trying to get a bus!

The solution - where the technical investment should go - must be in combining the door-to-door advantage of the private car with the relaxation of good public transport. And this means that, instead of billions on a limited fixed rail system connecting a half-a-dozen places to London, we should be looking at driverless cars. Because these do solve those problems and hold out the opportunity for long distance road travel to be significantly more efficient.

Here's Sam Bowman speculating (not unreasonably) about the opportunity:

Instead of spending 90 minutes driving in and out of work each day, commuters will be able to catch up with a newspaper and a cup of coffee while their car drives for them. Or by working remotely for those 90 minutes, a 9 to 5 employee could increase their daily earnings by 20 per cent.

Coordinating with each other remotely, driverless cars will be able to avoid other traffic, maybe ending congestion entirely. Cars are parked for 98 per cent of their lives: to exploit that, driverless car owners could turn their vehicles into taxis while they’re at work, drastically reducing costs for everyone. Eat your heart out, Uber.

One third of transportation costs are labour costs, which will be eliminated entirely, and driverless lorries will be able to travel non-stop, making goods transportation much cheaper. Driverless freight transport may eventually outcompete rail on time and price entirely, especially if driverless-only highways are built that allow for much faster speeds, making railroads entirely redundant.

We're still a fair distance from this world (and we can add local 'pod' systems such as that proposed for Milton Keynes to the mix) but it is clear that investment - brainpower and cash - is going into the driverless car. And that it makes the £30 billion plus proposed for HS2 seem like a completely misplaced investment.

The problem we have is that the public transport lobby has become a combination of vested interest (rail and bus operators want more money going into railways and bus systems) and misplaced environmentalism. Over half our national transport budget is being spent on subsidising inefficient transport systems and even the capital investment is misdirected - for example, Leeds are planning to spend £250 million putting a bus on a string.

The solutions have to be how we make more efficient use of road space - automation leads to safer travel and to significant improvements in fuel efficiency (what we could call the 'peloton principle') - rather than, as is the case now, responding to congestion by seeking to reduce use. Driverless systems also solve another problem - they are good (by travelling in peleton) for long distances yet still provide the flexibility to allow for door-to-door travel.

Given that we aren't expecting to see HS2 built for at least 15 years, it seems a better bet to line up behind private investment in road transport to get systems that respond to real need rather than narrowly-focused arguments about rail capacity.



Anonymous said...

HS2 is even worse economically than the Edinburgh tram system - or any other recent tram system - they're all transport specified through a rear-view mirror.

Also, in a past existence, I often had to attend meetings at Heathrow hotels - Sounds easy, early shuttle-flight from Leeds/Bradford, doddle.
I soon worked out that the total journey-time door-to-door, and accounting for delays, waits and diversions was longer than driving there, far more expensive, and I could do more work on the phone in the car by being in constant contact.
I gave up flying there, never regretted it.

Paul Perrin said...

Trains are massively past their sell by date - their only contribution to the future is that they preserved unbroken lanes of travel that can be used by other vehicles in future!

But the vested interests are huge - or the trans would have disappeared already (even without driverless cars).–-road-versus-rail-capacity-average-flow-density-use