Autonomous vehicles: heaven or nightmare

Most citizens have become accustomed with the omnipresence of cars and they have lost awareness of its tremendous impact: In the US a car cost about 20% of the average family income. 38,000 people died and 4.4 million were seriously injured due to motorized transport (2017). The infrastructure of towns worldwide is dominated by cars that contribute significant to CO2-emissions. Without any interventions car property and car use will grow exponentially in the next 30 years. Yet 96% of the time cars are standing idly by.

When the first autonomous vehicles (AV’s) showed up, many believed a new urban utopia was within reach. As Dan Sperling writesThe dream scenario could bring huge public and private benefits, including more transportation choices, greater affordability and accessibility, and healthier, more livable cities, along with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The nightmare scenario could bring more urban sprawl, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and unhealthy cities and individuals.

Instead of improving our cities, autonomous cars have the potential to ruin them, as Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar explains.

Let’s start with the default scenario. By far all technological and automotive companies are investing billions in development and testing of AV’s. This process proceeds much faster than we can imagine. Google alone, has completed more than 3 million kilometers of on-road travel with AV’s without injuries or fatalities. The policy of automotive companies is clear: They want us to buy as many private AV’s as possible, instead of becoming accustomed to shared use of cars. Moreover, companies like Uber cannot wait for deploying self-driving cars and firing all drivers. The drivers of the 3.5 million freight and delivery trucks and the 665,000 bus drivers wait for the same fate. Add to this the above-mentioned growth of urban and suburban transport and it is not surprising that many observants expect its total collapse.

Both the dark picture of a traffic nightmare and the optimistic vision of urban vitalization are based on conjectures, expectations and extrapolations. Fortunately, a growing body of research is becoming available. Still, this research is based on projections of actual behavior, surveys of citizens’ preferences and model building. Nevertheless, a more valid picture is emerging.

Outcomes of research

A first study to be mentioned here, was issued by the OECD and is a simulation, based on traveling data from Lisboa. The researchers wanted to know wat would happen if all conventional cars were replaced by shared AV’s, in combination with the existing metro. Under the trivial assumption that no users of the metro will switch to AV’s, the rather amazing outcome of the research is that 90% of cars could be removed from the city. Even at peak hours, only one third (35%) of today’s cars would be on the roads.

The short video below presents a more detailed overview of the results of this study.

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These results look promising: a heavenly scenario seems within reach. However, the omission of the substitution-effect between metro and AV’s detracts this study’s validity.

A thorough study of the Boston Consultancy group that is based om traffic data from the greater Boston area and questioning inhabitants, revealed less optimistic results:

  • Mobility-on-demand will account for 30% of all trips. Mobility-on-demand refers to the use not privately-owned cars, by one single traveler each time or shared.
  • Many citizens embrace the perspective of AV’s, but have trouble with the idea of sharing rides.
  • Use of private cars and public transport will drop.
  • Mileage of the trips by cars will growth with 16%, mainly due to the substitution of public transport for short rides in AV’s.
  • Parking spaces in urban areas will drop significantly.
  • Average travel time will decrease with a 4%.

The most interesting outcome was the existence of large difference between suburban and urban territories (See graph).

In suburban areas mobility on demand will mainly replace the use of personally owned cars and public transport will grow slightly. However, in urban areas, mobility on demand will replace personal cars and mass-transit. Here the average traveling time will increase with 5,5% due to increasing congestion.

It is true that the introduction of electric AV’s will significantly decrease CO2-emission. However, the best ways to combat congestion in urban areas are car sharing – even with conventional cars – public transport, walking and cycling.

As the transport revolution is only at the beginning, policy still can influence its course. Without dedicated policy, the prospect of growing congestion in urban areas and decline of public transport is very probable. Here are the most frequently mentioned building blocks.

Autonomous minibus: Photo Kristain Baty (Creative Commons)

A policy (stair)way to heaven

  1. Most frequently mentioned is the necessity to start with an overall view of the livability of the city. The transition from driver operated cars to (shared) AV’s is an opportunity to bend the absolute hegemony of the car and to place the city’s livability and attractively in the center.
  2. Within this overall picture, the transportation system must be considered as a whole. In such a system, cohesive choices are mandatory considering public transport versus AV’s, AV’s versus driver operated vehicles, shared AV’s versus single-user AV’s, transport of freight versus people and motorized traffic versus pedestrians and cyclists.
  3. At a certain level of maturity, a transportation system based on AV’s is not compatible with the operation of driver operated vehicles. At that time, driver-operated cars should be prohibited. Many advocates for pedestrians and cyclists are already pleading to exclude driver-operated vehicles and accelerating the switch to a full AV city (or world).
  4. In the downtown parts of the urban areas, the surface space should be prioritized for pedestrians and cyclists with lanes for AV’s with dedicated drop-off and pick-up zones for mobility-on-demand. Slowly driving AV’s might be allowed to penetrate areas predestinated for pedestrians in order to maintain the accessibility of hotels and the like.
  5. In urban areas, pricing policy has to de-incentivize the use of AV’s for short distances in favor of pedestrian – partly indoor – sidewalks and rental bikes. In suburban areas, apart from the use of AV’s for medium and long distances, autonomous minibuses with dynamic routing systems will connect houses and apartments with metro- bus- and train-stations.
  6. Pricing policy always is occupancy-based, prioritizing the use of public transport and shared AV’s and also incentivizing traveling outside rush hours. The removal of single-user AV’s will increase the city-wide travel time by 15%.
  7. Road and occupancy-based pricing are the most important tools for government to manage the number of AV’s itself and to promote shared usage. Road pricing has to compensate also for the loss of taxes, for instance on gas.
  8. Particularly in urban areas and between urban and suburban areas, public transport will be more indispensable than ever. In territories with low density AV’s can take care of all necessary transportation.

AV’s will enable the greatest transformation in urban life since the introduction of the automobile. Government at local and national level has to establish a regulatory framework for AV’s that is nudging us in the direction of an AV heaven, away from an AV nightmare.


*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.
**) Source header:  Autonomous vehicle Photo Grendelkhan (Creative Commons)
***) Another inspiring source is a book of Dan Sperling : Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future.

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