AVs Could Increase Traffic Congestion Without Regulation

Self-driving transport is often touted as a future remedy to the congestion issue.

Instead, in absence of strict regulation, it can cause yet another fleet expansion, all leading to denser traffic and worsening urban parking issues. That’s the opinion of Arthur D. Little Russia head Alexander Ovanesov said in an interview for TU-Automotive. Evidence is strong that self-driving cars will initially come in the form of robo-taxis while the well-known virtue of taxi cabs is that they serve to many people while private cars are typically used only by owners and their families. Ovanesov gets his point across by making parallels with the current explosive growth of shared transport in larger cities globally: “You can see what happens with taxis and car-sharing in, say, Moscow. Thanks to the applied incentives, it flourished recently so that our measurements show that it’s a surplus to the private fleet instead of a substitute. The authorities are now thinking about reversing their policies.”

To prevent a similar issue expected with coming of mass-production autonomous vehicles, authorities must get prepared with corresponding policies. “After all, accurate regulation is the crucial factor,” the analyst says. In each region, the authorities’ first step must be to define town-specific and route-specific targets on shares of each modality: “You can’t just release control and let it alone in a hope that the market would self-regulate.”

Using such a route-modality matrix, the regulators can apply appropriate measures to manipulate the trends, either stimulating or moderating the growth of the autonomous fleet. “One universal policy, for instance, is leveraging incentives based on demand forecast,” he says. The range of measures is familiar to each urban planning specialist, from financial benefits for purchasing or insuring autonomous transport, stimulation of recycling of manually-driven vehicles to assigning quotas for presence of modalities in corporate fleets and more.

The task is complicated by interrelations with the taxi and labor market regulations, Ovanesov says: “Some of the first future users of autonomous vehicles will obviously be ride-hailing operators like Uber or Yandex who are, currently, pushing development of technologies and corresponding legislation. While the operators want to exclude the human drivers, their largest concern, the city authorities have to get prepared to ‘absorb’ the army of unemployed cabmen.”

Globally, such policies of balancing the ratio of manually and automatically driven vehicles are, still, a matter of the near future. “One example of stimulation we’re seeing in Dubai where authorities firmly head towards the world-first use case in a massively driverless transportation system with 25% of trips to be done in the autonomous mode by 2030,” he says. The emirate’s national program, sponsored by Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) of Dubai, sets KPIs for every mode of transport which affect any decision on the transportation system development.

Non-linear transition

So, why would autonomous technologies energize car sales in the first place? “It’s quite an obvious idea: more convenience brings more demand,” Ovanesov replied. “If autonomous cars will give a better experience, people will use them more broadly.” He foresees high demand for such functions as summoning a car. For instance, if an owner parks a car at one city park entrance, they will want to take it from another entrance. Even the consumers who cannot drive will consider using a such car. As a result, road traffic will continue to grow unless driverless vehicles are subjected to restrictions.

The most unstable phase bringing serious negative side effects is when comparably large fleets of driverless and piloted vehicles are simultaneously on the roads: “That is why you cannot slowly and gradually increase the share of autonomous vehicles. Instead, transition from manual driving to AVs should be non-linear with the ‘point of parity’ passed as quickly as possible.”

Would there come a time for a similar transition phase in the switch from privately owned cars and shared use ones? “Not yet,” he argues. “Car sharing by itself is not a reason strong enough for people to get rid of private cars.” Ovanesov  added that the whole public transportation system must be convenient in the meaning that people can really effectively control their trips via an integrated digital platform. “I can imagine them opting for the cheapest route, or the most sporty, environment-friendly, or the one with some sightseeing. Let alone comfort available in every train, bus or taxicab and every transportation hub, all available within, say, a monthly subscription plan. That is the level of convenience that will make people re-consider such issues of a private car as maintenance, parking or driving in traffic jams.”

That is the only way to downsize fleets, whether manually or automatically driven, he concludes: “Dozens of cities are working to find the optimum balance and create such super-convenient transportation systems.”

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