Autonomous Consequences Could Include More Traffic

Most discussions about driverless, autonomous cars, have led to claims that they will help reduce congestion. Not so, says the RAC Foundation.

It cites a UK government report which believes the opposite is true. Claiming that driverless cars could increase congestion by 85% by 2060. Presently, it’s thought that drivers lose more than 80 hours a year owing to congestion and traffic-related issue. The RAC says this dramatically shoots up to 156 hours for people living in London, according to travel supplier Inrix. The report suggests that a wider adoption of driverless cars would increase traffic because they will increase the mobility of the elderly and of those who don’t have a driving license. As the cars take more control, people will gain the ability to work or relax while travelling in autonomous vehicles, making them, drivers and passengers, more “amenable to sitting in traffic”.

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, says the UK government has posited the notion that travel-time would be much less of an issue to people than it is now. This is because the ability to let go of the steering wheel could enable users to find enjoyment in infotainment or become more productive in their work while they travel in an autonomous vehicle.

Although congestion could be an issue with non-driving license holders being able to get about more, he says it also creates the opportunity for more on-demand autonomous services, while arguing that there is also the possibility that reduced costs could incentivize more travel.

DfT: Transport revolution

Despite the claim that driverless cars could increase rather than reduce congestion, the RAC says the Department for Transport (DfT) report believes that self-driving vehicles could “revolutionize public transport and passenger travel, especially for those who don’t drive, better connect rural communities, and reduce road collisions caused by human error”.

It adds: “Further in the future, they could, for example, provide tailored on-demand links from rural towns and villages to existing public transport options nearby. They could also provide more direct and timely services that enable people to better access vital services such as schools and medical appointments.”

The DfT released its Connected & Automated Mobility 2025 report in 2022. In the report it shows optimism about the future of autonomous vehicles. It believes that autonomous vehicles will be on our roads by 2025. However, that’s just the start of it. By 2047 it predicts that more than half of the cars in the UK will be autonomous. This includes the wider adoption of electric cars, many of which will have some form of self-driving technology.

Optimizing technology

Kaity Fischer, vice-president of commercial at Wayve comments: “Self-driving vehicles will be an integral part of a safer, more efficient and more sustainable transport system. The government’s modelling was based on the private ownership of self-driving cars but we are optimizing our technology on electric vehicles for fleet customers in sectors like last-mile delivery and shared mobility services. Self-driving vehicles, when used in electric fleets, will ultimately lead to faster journey times and reduce the number of vehicles on the road, cutting congestion and emissions.”

Sunil Budhdeo, transport innovation manager Coventry City Council and member of the Institution of Engineering Technology’s Transport Policy Panel, explains the government’s report is based on the understanding that 50% of vehicles will be autonomous. In his opinion that figure would have to be 80-80% to have any impact on reducing congestion. This is because the vehicles at this level of proliferation would be talking to each other, as well as to the infrastructure.

He adds: “The infrastructure needs to improve communication with the raw data that’s given to the vehicles, such as traffic regulation orders and parking spaces, as well as improving the availability of the network. Current vehicles have the technology, which has been deactivated owing to the current regulations of driving autonomously only with a safety driver.  To move to the next level, we need to improve the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) communication. It’s not over optimistic but it’s about managing those expectations.”

Personal vehicle ownership

So, is the issue of congestion about personal vehicle ownership and how would on-demand vehicles reduce the pressure? Gooding says there are two factors playing against each other here. Car-club evidence suggests that people who’ve given up vehicle ownership tend to drive themselves less than hitherto. He admits this may be a product of convenience as you don’t have to book access to your own car and another factor could be price. Paying for each trip brings home the real costs in a way that car ownership doesn’t. There is, therefore, a need to make on-demand mobility more convenient and cheaper than vehicle ownership to ensure that it is used frequently.

That said, Budhdeo doesn’t believe it’s about personal ownership. He thinks future ownership will depend on the automakers “who will provide a pool of on-demand vehicles for the consumers’ purposes”. This may be for short or long journey, or consumers may prefer to take public transport.

He suggests that the current on-demand model used by operators such as Uber and other on-demand car clubs, public transport and upcoming new services, can be operated by automakers because they can be made autonomous in the future. However: “Vehicles that can do a particular journey without being on a pre-defined route would encourage a reduction in private vehicle ownership.”

Growing mixed mobility

As to the matter of whether autonomous vehicle will really revolutionize public transport and passenger travel, or whether there will be a need for mixed mobility for years to come, Gooding says it’s hard to say right now. “It seems very unlikely that there would be an overnight transition away from trains and buses to some new form of mobility that does not yet exist as a practical proposition at scale anywhere in the world,” he opines.

In his view much depends so much on “the actual cost impact of taking the driver out of the equation”. Yet, he believes there is potential for radical change. Unfortunately, this is also comes with no certainty over what form that radical change might take.

Budhdeo sounds more confident: “Autonomous vehicles will revolutionize passenger travel and public transport as they will be based on demand-responsive transport. You could put vehicles where they are required, using autonomous buses, taxis, car clubs and passenger carrying drones – which will revolutionize public transport. Autonomous vehicles  are one element of this service. What we haven’t explored is the autonomous transport on urban air mobility, such as drones operating in an urban environment, which can be used autonomously for passengers, delivering parcels and goods.”

He nevertheless concurs that there will be a need for mixed mobility for years to come. In fact, he suggests it’s going to increase. This is very dependent on the way logistics is delivered and its impact on the way vehicle autonomy is too. Trends within the autonomous vehicle market are also likely to have an impact. He remarks: “The only way we are going to achieve this is by working with local planners and developers to ensure we provide the infrastructure and secure communication that allow AVs to operate in all areas. This will provide a true mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) solution within the urban environment by encouraging mix mobility options, such as e-scooters, e-bikes, e–Cargo bikes, electric drones and autonomous vehicles.”

In his opinion mixed mobility is, and always will be. the solution for autonomous vehicles as well as for the future of transport. He calls on support for governments to develop secure communications that are specifically designed for transportation. This should, he argues, include road, rail, and air.

A helpful reminder

Gooding concludes by suggesting that the government’s findings are a helpful reminder that there is a world of difference between unforeseen consequences as opposed to unintended consequences. Unforeseen consequences might legitimately take us by surprise. With the latter of unintended consequences he believes there is time to think through what the broader strategy should be.

How does it begin? It starts, he says, with ongoing dialogue between those “developing vehicle technology, those developing commercial mobility options, and those responsible for the policy environment so that all three can move in-step, hopefully in a direction that will be beneficial for all of us”. One of those aspects of being ‘beneficial to us’ should ideally be a reduction in traffic congestion.  

One comment

  1. Avatar Jerry Roane 20th March 2023 @ 4:21 pm

    A self-routing city can handle more flow with the same resources or guideway can vastly increase flows accommodating this induced travel. Travel is good. More travel adds more value. Advanced dual mode EVs powered by solar PV panels mounted to the guideway does not use grid power or oil while producing zero emissions at the tailpipe or at the solar PV panel.

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