Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Driverless vehicles make railways (and our fast cars) obsolete

Every time such things as the "Northern Powerhouse" are mentioned the punditry, politicians and media immediately start agitating for billions to be invested in railways. This is despite the fact that railways account for only 3% of journeys in the UK while over 80% of journeys take place on roads. I've always suspected this is something of a 'boys' toys' response - we were brought up with train sets, Thomas the Tank Engine and Ivor. We like railways.

Consider this then:

"By combining ride sharing with car sharing—particularly in a city such as New York—MIT research has shown that it would be possible to take every passenger to his or her destination at the time they need to be there, with 80 percent fewer cars."


"An OECD study modelling the use of self-driving cars in Lisbon found that shared “taxibots” could reduce the number of cars needed by 80-90%. Similarly, research by Dan Fagnant of the University of Utah, drawing on traffic data for Austin, Texas, found that an autonomous taxi with dynamic ride-sharing could replace ten private vehicles. This is consistent with the finding that one extra car in a car-sharing service typically takes 9-13 cars off the road. Self-driving vehicles could, in short, reduce urban vehicle numbers by as much as 90%."

No new trains, no trams, no trolley buses, no bus lanes - just the realisation that automated cars ('driverless' as we call them) represent the real future of mass transportation. Not only will this, combined with emissionless or very low emission engines, reduce the negative environmental impact of road transport but we'll also see a dramatic drop in road casualties.

The reality is that investment on rail transport is not going to achieve payback ahead of the driverless car revolution - those billions now promised in new rolling stock, new stations and new lines are not needed. Cities need to be investing in the infrastructure required for driverless cars and to start planning for a city that doesn't need large parts of its land set aside to parking cars. This could mean more urban green space, the release of urban centre land for new housing and increased capacity on existing highways.

A world where we don't drive other than in controlled environments like race tracks seems strange in a culture seemingly dominated by the car but this is the likeliest result of driverless vehicles. For most of us the car (however much we drool over Ferrari and Aston Martin) is a practical and prosaic thing used to get us about the place. A very expensive practical and prosaic thing too. A world with vastly fewer road accidents, where we have no need to own a large lump of metal and plastic that sits doing nothing most of the time, and where the air is cleaner and the city greener - this is the world we should prepare for now.



Anonymous said...

But, as the Americans would say, do the math.

Currently, having the personal use of a car is constrained by age, health, wealth, ability to pass a test, limit of penalty points, sobriety etc.
Driverless (and particularly occasional) cars would require only limited cash and none of the rest, meaning that every blind, drunken, crippled, under-age, illiterate, educationally sub-normal, banned individual would suddenly be able to have a unique vehicle available to them at all times.
Now work out the impact of all that additional loading on the already-strained infrastructure - it would double the amount of traffic. So where's all those new roads coming from - or the money to pay for them?
As the Americans would also say, wake up and smell the coffee.

Curmudgeon said...

The key issue is whether the driverless car will be able to take you to the pub and back again ;-)

Seriously, I agree this is a potentially game-changing technology, but it's too early to know exactly how it's going to affect society. There are a lot of vested interests that will seek to stymie or severely restrict it - just look at what happened to Segways.

And people have a strong attachment to owning cars and seeing them as an expression of both their personality and their status. I'm not sure they'll be happy to revert to a more collectivised transport system.