Utopian dream or dystopian nightmare: Why autonomous vehicles might not provide the congestion free transport vision we seek

14 January 2019
Digital image of a car
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The vision of autonomous vehicles moving us effortlessly from door to door as the future solution to our daily commute and personal transport needs is a seductive one.

It’s an aspiration that is becoming close to reality as major car manufacturers race to invest in the dream. Using existing communications technology and developing new artificial intelligence solutions, we should very soon be able to sit back and be driven at the swipe of a screen.

Technology will certainly play a massive role in our transport future. Yet my fear is that the current rush to embrace this autonomous vision could actually backfire. It could risk us missing out on many of the huge benefits that technology should bring to UK transport and the development of mobility worldwide.

Rethinking our mobility future

Mobility is about moving freely and ensuring that our journeys are ‘easier’ or ‘better’. By “easier and better” I mean journeys where the interfaces between modes of transport are simple and available; where a single payment is made for the whole journey; where the right data is ready to help make choices; where information is on hand to help explain why services are disrupted and how to move forward with minimal delay.

Without question, technology can help to create this change, giving us consistent journeys that are seamless, sustainable, environmentally friendly, accessible to all and, of course, safe. But while we remain wedded to travel in our personalised boxes – autonomous or otherwise – it’s hard to see how a true transformation will be possible.

Let’s face it, technology has already made a lot of promises when it comes to delivering better journeys. However, people still tend to want to make journeys on their own at roughly the same time - and to date, technology has offered little to tackle the congestion that inevitably follows.

This is the fundamental failing. Our current transport solutions tend to focus on providing capacity to meet demand rather than addressing the real need of most travellers which is to provide reliable journey times. Sadly, meeting this objective is becoming less and less likely.

In search of reliable journey times

We are repeatedly told that autonomous vehicles (AV) are racing forward with the solution to congestion via initiatives such as Transport as a Service and on-demand car hire services. Every day, it seems, we read of another investment or project in this area, with some commentators predicting that, by 2030, 95% of passenger journey miles could be by fleet-owned autonomous electric vehicles. Fantasy perhaps, but the development of AVs is on the march.

AV technology certainly offers some real potential benefits including reduced accidents, reduced CO2 emissions, lower fuel consumption, last mile service solutions, enhanced transportation accessibility, reduced travel time and lower transportation costs. Plus, of course, the benefits of more productive travel time for travellers, trading the ability to work throughout a slower commute in return for the guarantee of arriving on time.

So for inter-urban journeys and as the preferred mode for connecting rural communities to each other and to mass transport nodes, this utopian vision of autonomous vehicles may well be an interesting option for achieving reliable journey times.

Rethinking personal transport

However, there is a much bigger opportunity to transform our urban transport by embracing a radical move away from personal transport towards more shared services. And with predictions that by 2050 nearly 70% of the population will live in cities, the opportunity is massive.

Without steps to encourage this transformation we simply will not address some of the pressing social issues such as congestion, pollution and the rising cost of delay.

As such, the current AV revolution is not the right solution for urban transportation. Skipping over issues such as the ability to deal with exceptional conditions, technology failures, privacy, cyber security, insurance and legal issues, simply replacing fleets of congested manual vehicles with fleets of congested autonomous vehicles will not achieve better overall journeys.

In fact, the prospect of more personal AVs in our cities is worrying. Instead, we need a culture that embraces technology to create transport networks which work for all, not just the few – with focus on sustainable options like cycling and walking, ride-sharing and other shared use modes.

Technology at the heart of new transport culture

Technology holds a powerful key to securing our transport future, but it should not start with a race for personal AVs. Instead the ubiquitous smart phone, linked to an array of live sensors, information databases and analytical tools must ensure we are well informed, capable and comfortable to switch from a personal to a shared mode of travel.

That means wrapping these new technology solutions in a new transport culture in which we accept that a shared transport solution is more likely to deliver a better journey outcome for all.

Sadly, allowing free market forces to take effect could see a massive increase in independent travel via personal AV cocoons, resulting in a dystopian vision of increased congestion and further negative health and social impacts.

This is not the solution for better journeys that we dream of. As transport professionals, we must ensure that the benefits new technology offer are not lost through a rush to achieve the apparently seductive goal of a fully autonomous vehicle fleet.


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