A driverless future? Don’t believe the hype

| January 15, 2019

Public transport is the beating heart of a successful and liveable city, and will be for a long time to come, likely forever. If you don’t believe that, let me sell you a fleet of autonomous cars now.

I’ll even throw in a Segway, a flying car, a hovercraft and a Sinclair 5 to sweeten the deal.

Because if you blindly believe the hype around autonomous cars at the moment, it should be an easy sale.

I, clearly, don’t believe the hype. In fact, as a transportation researcher, I become enraged at the misinformation and rubbish being peddled about the future of transport, and the future of public transport in particular.

It’s far too early to think autonomous cars will dominate travel in cities. They’re not the answer to traffic congestion and they certainly don’t spell the end for public transport, as many have suggested.

The hype, at any rate, viewed within the theoretical framework of the Hype Cycle, has already entered the trough of disillusionment after reaching a peak of inflated expectation in 2015.

Despite this though, commuters are still continuously presented with blanket statements that public transport has no future in the modern city and that it will be rendered obsolete by new modes of transport and mobility.

To borrow a now familiar phrase, it’s fake news!

It flies in the face of facts and a long history of built knowledge about the human condition, economics, cities and travel data.

The great sharing lie

Cities now represent humanity’s home. In 2007, for the first time, more than half the world’s population were city dwellers, and that proportion has only increased since then.

Melbourne, for instance, which has just hit a population of five million, is projected to increase to eight million in 2051.

Along with population growth comes attendant problems, not least of which is traffic congestion. In Australia, congestion costs $9.4 billion per year and is expected to rise to $20.4 billion by 2020.

Common prevailing thinking presents autonomous car fleets as a solution to this traffic congestion, but this argument relies on what I call the shared mobility lie.

Shared mobility is a term now widely used to refer to transport network companies such as Uber and Lyft, bike sharing and car sharing.

This type of demand-responsive transport system has many fine features and certainly makes it easier to book and use a transport system, but to describe it as shared mobility implies that the travel involves shared occupancy. It doesn’t.

Recent data out of the United States shows that the average passenger occupancy of an Uber vehicle in traffic was found to be 0.66. That’s not sharing; indeed, the vehicles are 34 per cent empty taking up road space.

There’s no reason why autonomous car-user habits would be any different. Would you share a car with a total stranger? It’s a long way from the shared occupancy of public transport, in which more than 2000 people can travel in, say, one train. That’s real shared mobility!

Or a bus with 50 passengers. That’s true shared mobility, too.

The great public transport technology lie

It’s easy to find detractors of public transport, not least of whom are the day-to-day users of trams, trains and buses having to cope with unreliable services and overcrowding, caused mostly by lack of government infrastructure investment.

It’s a disenchantment that feeds the narrative of autonomous car progressives – that driverless cars are the future alternative to address the transport problems being faced by increasingly crowded cities.

The fundamental failure in this narrative is the assumption that public transport doesn’t work and is too old to be involved in the automated vehicle technology trend.

The reality is that autonomous public transport vehicles already dominate land-based passenger travel.

Four in 10 railways in Asia have no drivers. Autonomous trains operate today in Vancouver, Barcelona, London and very soon will operate in Sydney. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of kilometres automated trains operated doubled and, by 2025, this is expected to increase by more than 130 per cent.

Mass transit, not single-occupancy cars

More cars and more roads are not the answer for congested cities.

Transit systems, liberated by the very technologies that make driverless cars possible, are the only option for shared occupancy at the volume needed to meet the needs of large and growing cities.

The imperative to make mass transit systems efficient and effective must be on government infrastructure investment agendas.

Now, about that sale …

This article was published by Lens.