A new NZIER research report, entitled “Disruption on the road ahead! How auto technology will change much more than just our commute to work“, makes the case that new technologies will upend urban transport systems:

Near autonomous cars followed by driverless vehicles (smart cars) will transform our commute to work and much more over the next two decades.

Car-based technologies hold the promise of reducing the billions of dollars we spend on roads by improving how we use them and by saving lives.

We need to rethink our reliance on infrastructure solutions to transport problems and look at how to effectively embrace the new technologies.

If you read on, the report implies that we should stop investing in public transport and count on driverless cars to allow roads to flow more efficiently. The report does not grapple with the question of where the driverless cars will be stored – in spite of the fact that parking is one of the costliest elements of a car-heavy urban transport system. Space is expensive in cities and cars, even driverless ones, do not use space efficiently.

Now, let me be perfectly clear: this is a lazy analysis. As I have previously argued, waiting on unproven technologies to solve our problems is a bad strategy, especially when there are proven technologies that can be implemented right now. It is more realistic to invest in frequent bus networks, rapid transit infrastructure like Auckland’s rail network and the Northern Busway, and safe cycling facilities like the separated Beach Road cycleway. (Auckland Transport, like many other transport agencies, understands this and is getting on with it!)

However, if we set aside NZIER’s technological utopianism, they are making a reasonable point: When a transformational technology emerges, governments must make complementary public investments to enable society to benefit.

With that in mind, I would like to point out that a technology revolution has happened over the last decade – and gone largely unnoticed by New Zealand’s transport agencies. I’m talking about electric bikes, which are now proven, readily-available technology. Several companies are selling them in New Zealand, with basic models going for under $1000, which is price-competitive with a new road bike. In the Netherlands, 19% of all new bikes purchased in 2013 were electric.

Why is this so revolutionary? Simply put, because electric bikes flatten out all the hills on a cycling route. By providing a bit of extra oomph when riding up inclines, they remove a major barrier to cycling in hilly cities like Auckland and Wellington. Suddenly, the vertiginous climb out of the Queen Street gully might as well be pancake-flat Christchurch.

electric cycle 07122012.JPG JPEG 0540287993
Easy as… climbing the world’s steepest residential street on an electric bike (Source)

Even on flat sections, the additional power provided by the electric motor can make cycling much more relaxing and gentle. That may not matter to the young and/or fit, but it’s a boon to people who are less fit or only starting to cycle.

Consequently, electric bikes have the potential to majorly disrupt New Zealand’s urban transport markets. According to my calculations based on 2013 Census journey to work data, one-third of all commutes in Auckland are under 5 kilometres. At present, only a very small minority of those trips are done by bike. Recent technological change means that could shift, and rapidly. Taking all those short trips on bikes would have a much more fundamental impact on congestion than driverless cars.

However, there are some big barriers to getting the full benefits of this transformative technology. Simply put, our roads often feel too unsafe to ride on. People on bikes often must compete for road space with cars, buses, and trucks. They have to look out for cars backing out of driveways and drivers opening doors into their path. Over a lifetime these risks are more than balanced out by the health benefits of cycling, but they can feel a bit intimidating.

Copenhagen cyclists wikipedia
If only there was something we could do to make streets feel safer for cycling… (Source)

There is a strong case for public investment and policy changes to unlock the benefits of electric bikes. It is relatively easy to make cycling safe and common by investing in a complete cycle network. This means:

  • Implementing more off-road cycle paths like the successful Northwestern Cycleway and Grafton Gully Cycleway, and the impending Nelson Street and Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive cycleways
  • Putting separated on-street cycle lanes, like the excellent Beach Road cycleway, on every major road where there is enough space
  • Slowing speed limits to improve safety on side streets and alternative routes like the Dominion Road parallel routes.

This can all be done immediately at a relatively low cost. It will enable us to benefit from a transformative technology that actually exists right now, rather than waiting decades for an unproven technology. So why aren’t the enthusiasts for “disruptive technology” taking notice?

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81 comments

  1. But are electric bikes so very different from say, small, cheap motor scooters, that they should be considered a “transformational technology”?

    1. Yes, yes they are. An electric bike is legally restricted to a top speed of 30km/h and a top power output of 250W, which makes them legally not “motor vehicles”. So they can use bike paths, don’t need rego or scooter/motorbike helmets, weave in and out of traffic, etc.

      I got my Wisper 705se in 2009 and it has probably saved me twice the $1900 I paid for it in PT fares. I blogged about it for a while: silver-machine.blogspot.co.nz. Ask me anything.

      1. For sure electric bikes are ‘different’ from mopeds etc, but once the fairly simple new-user requirements for a small motorbike have been met, the money savings you mention can similarly be achieved. Many people will opt for a small scooter for the same reason.

        Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating petrol over electric in any form at all. Far from it! As a cyclist myself I strongly support the advantages of bicycles – electric or otherwise, although the exercise benefits will obviously be less for elecric bikes. I am just posing the question of whether the the basic purposes that can be achieved with an electric bike or a small motor bike are so different from each other that the advent of the electric bike can really be considered a “technology revolution”.

        Maybe the answer is yes. What do others think, and why?

        1. People argue that electric vehicles will transform driving, and yet they take up the same amount of space as petrol cars, drive the same, and so on and so forth. They do reduce local emissions, but in countries that rely upon coal-fired power plants they don’t even result in any net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. (A far bigger problem in the long run!)

          I guess my point is that we shouldn’t expect technology to fundamentally transform urban travel. Ultimately, we’re still relying on the same technology we had a century ago – cars, buses, trains, bicycles, ferries. And feet.

      2. Hi Daphne,

        I read your blog a while back and interesting it was too, pity you haven’t updated it for a while, I’d be interested to hear of the latter days adventures of the silver-machine.

        I agree an e-bike is way cheaper way to get around than PT fares in Auckland. I calculated at the amount of time I ride to/from work that it might take me 3 years to pay off the e-bike in savings over driving or getting the bus, but its way more enjoyable than either.

        I’d bike a lot more if I had fully seperate cycle lanes the whole way, as it has I have to use the bus lanes for most of the trip. Even if it is hilly I can do it in about the same time as I can by car driving – and when the congestion is bad, much faster than I can by driving.

      3. Actually, there’s nothing regulating top speed of e-Bikes in NZ (other than the general speed limits). There is only a power limit of 300W. You may be thinking of the EU regs (250W limit and power cut-out at 25 kph).

        1. I was speaking with an importer on the weekend, and they said that the limits were 300w power output, and an automatic cut off of power assist at 30km/h. The latter is different from a 30km/h speed limit, they can obviously still go faster than that under gravity and muscle power.

    2. Dave bikes, electric or not, are very different from motorbikes, especially in terms of skill required, cost, and how dangerous they are.

      They are also an almost perfect match with high quality Rapid Transit systems, especially for places with relatively dispersed settlement patterns. All that is required are decent on-street and off-road cycleways, especially focussed on stations, and good bike storage at those stations.

      Together these to systems are potentially transformative not least of which because they are proven and available technologies. Both Auckland and Wellington desperately need to invest the relatively small sums in cycle paths to stations on their Rapid Transit Networks. The last mile is a vital consideration for RTNs, and both sorts of bikes are an important part of the answer.

      1. Actually I was thinking more like a motorbike. Something where you could get rid of the pedals and yes you are right they have done that.

    1. Gutless? Electric motors have far more torque pound for pound than ICEs. Like to see you ride a Moped up Baldwin St, I couldn’t even get mine up the driveway!

    2. Plus, you’d be going back to fossil fuels, so you’re abandoning half the societal benefit. Even in countries not as electricity-sustainable as NZ, changing electricity to sustainable sources is much easier than trying to find some kack-ass way to deal with the pollution and environment destruction inherent in our oil addiction. Zero points.

      1. True, but the biggest environmental benefit would be in getting people out of energy-hungry and polluting cars, and onto *any* form of light, 2-wheeled transport.
        If all solo-drivers in their 1000Kg+ cars switched to mopeds en-masse, the environmental improvement would still be huge, even if not quite as much as if they all went to electric bikes.!

    3. Hmm,
      imagine if someone could remove the gutless heavy battery from a e-bike and replace it with a hydrogen fuel cell, then feed it with small cartridges of compressed hydrogen (or methanol).

      Why you’d have something like, I dunno, a fc-bike, with a potentially unlimited range and no recharge time…

      That might be a transformational technology and I’d bet on seeing a lot of those before I see driver less cars in NZ.

  2. with regards to smart cars, I was recently thinking about implications in terms of liability if a smart car switched to some fully autonomous mode, fails and results in a serious/ fatal accident. would drivers be wiling to bear that liability cause i’m sure car companies would be looking to protect themselves from it?

  3. Not to worry everyone! One day in the future we will have cars that can fold into a suitcases. If and when that happens, all our problems will be solved.

  4. The other factor preventing cycling is the weather (looking outside today I don’t think I would want to ride home). So how about covered bike lanes? Sounds expensive, right? Well, $1000/m should be enough to build a 3m wide cover, so we could do 2000km for the price of the waterview connection. Why would you drive an expensive car to work when you can ride an electric bike, get some exercise, not get stuck in traffic, and not pay for parking or petrol. And like you say, we don’t need to wait 15 years+ for it to be possible, its possible now!

    1. Look now, it’s fine.

      You’ll always get the ‘it’s too hilly, it’s too wet, it’s too cold, it’s too hot’ response. The reality is many still manage to overcome these and bike anyway.

      1. The easier you make it to ride, the more people will do it. The big three ‘excuses’ are that its dangerous, it rains, and you get sweaty. We can eliminate all three with electric bikes and dedicated covered bike routes.
        I honestly think if we had dedicated covered bike routes and good suppliers of reasonably priced electric bikes we would see a massive increase in cycling. Just because some people don’t mind getting wet / run over / sweaty, doesn’t mean we all want to!

        1. I spent 2 years commuting by bicycle in Auckland, plus 3 years on a motorcycle in Akl, plus 2 years on a bicycle in Sydney. Here are my observations:
          – It rains a lot in Auckland, just not for very long at a time. You get wet a lot less than you might think.
          – Commuting on a bicycle is so much better than almost any other type of commute.
          – Getting sweaty is a problem but showers at work solve this. Not as good for girls as it is for guys (what with doing hair and so forth). Appreciate this is a deal breaker for a lot of people.
          – Commuting on a bicycle in Sydney in summer is hot work. But so is walking to the train or bus.

          YMMV

        2. No there is only one thing needed for cycling to increase. Good separated cycle infrastructure.

          You may have heard of the Netherlands and Denmark? Much worse weather and I am pretty sure they sweat the same as NZers.

          But what they do have is awesome infrastructure. 60% mode share in Groningen – it’s not because it is a tropical paradise.

  5. Even the lycra brigade love them. On a recent windy evening as I slogged my way into a headwind across the northwestern cycleway I was passed by an older person on an electric bike with a line of lycra clad roadies in a train behind her benefiting from the tow. I was just too slow to jump on the back. They’re ideal for commuting.

    And yes, a shockingly lazy piece by NZIER. They’re lost their last bit of credibility with me.

      1. It’s not just the slipstream but it is way easier to follow someone than ride at the front yourself. This is probably just mentally, but the difference is noticable. This is the reason you see this happen in the Tour de France as well; they always change who is in front, because driving in front costs much more energy (physically and mentally)

      2. Sure is. You can be saving up 15% of your energy. That’s why a group can catch a single rider. You take a short time at the front, then slip to the back, in a continuous cycle. You sure notice how much extra work you have to do when you take your turn at the front.

    1. Seriously, thats like asking which car is best.

      It all depends on what you want to do with it and how much you are prepared to pay (or can afford) and also how far you want to ride, and to a point how light or heavy you are.

      Many of the cheaper e-bikes are imported from China and are simply not designed for larger/heavier people, and many have zero after sales service or spares available so once it breaks you’ve got a piece of junk.

      If interested I recommend you go to ElectricBikes.co.nz website and then go to Bute Bikes in Bute Road, Browns Bay for an actual ride on one, as they supply models you can (a) buy in NZ and (b) are appropriate for NZ conditions (c) you know will be supported and have spares available.

      I don’t have anything to do with these guys but I bought mine from there and they know what they’re doing, theyve been doing it for a long time and they also supply NZ Post with e-bike kits for posties, so they must be doing something right.

      1. Going to/from work. Occasional trips to the shops. Mostly around the inner city/K rd/Ponsonby area. Maybe some further out trips.

        I’d like to pay at little as possible, but am willing to pay for quality.

        I am regular sized.

        I would prefer not to go out to Brown’s Bay without some idea of what I’d like. I’d also need to get it back to the city without a car.

        1. You could easily ride it from Browns bay to the city via Devonport or Bayswater then on the ferry, as most e-bikes would 20+kms on a charge, more than enough to do that with room to spare.

          And as for getting out there, plenty of buses to there from the city to get you there.

          As for bike, you’ll want to spend at least $1000, possibly more if you want a good bike, electricbikes website has all the bikes you’ll see at Bute Bikes (same crowd), Bute Road Browns Bay, so let your mouse do the walking first before you go out there.

          Suggest you get one with a rear wheel in hub motor using planetary gears, a rear wheel with as many rear gears as you need (and then some as e-bikes are heavier than normal ones).

          Don’t bother with regenerative braking as its not worth the hassle, throttle control if a nice to have over the pedal electric function and get as big a battery as you can get. Make sure the bike has marine grade connectors on all the electrics – as NZ rain gets places other countries rain doesn’t.
          Ensure brakes and motor are interlocked so when you apply brakes the electric motor stops boosting you – nothing worse than hitting the brakes only to have the bike develop a mind of its own and keep powering you into the very obstacle you want to avoid 🙂

          Nice to haves are:
          removable battery in case you live in an apartment building (or work in an office) so can take the battery indoor for charging while leaving the bike outside. Settable electric assist e.g. 5 levels of e-assist. In built light set so you don’t need separate lights (although you might want some more lights on you/your bike anyway). Kickstand to keep bike upright so you don’t need to find a post to prop it up, or lie it on the ground.

          e-bike servicing is available in Ponsonby if thats more local, but most bike shops can take care of the bike side and the electrics side shouldn’t need a lot of maintenance.

  6. And aren’t many just as enamoured with the envisioned bicycling “perfect future” as the MoT and NZTA (and NZIER) are with Driverless Cars and the world was thought to be with the Segway – before they rode one or saw one in the flesh?

    I refer to the “Copenhagen Wheel” that mythical “make any bike a e-bike” device which is yet to actually you know, ship, and thus transform any ones humdrum bikes into modern futuristic and yet retro-cool e-bikes.

    Whereas there are real life e-bikes you can buy right now that actually work and deliver all of the e-bike goodness people want.

    Maybe one day there will be common and affordable Copenhagen wheels, just like there will be plentiful driver-less taxis on the road which cost nothing to hire.
    But right now there aren’t any in this part of the world.

    And even if there was, unless people can buy one, and someone actually wants to ride a bike (or use a driverless car), it won’t solve any problem no matter how cool, sexy or desirable it looks.

      1. Hope it worth the lengthy wait (3 months minimum), and doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than something “flakey”.
        At the price though you could buy a e-bike for that sort of money tomorrow here in NZ that would be do the same job.

        Oh, and one swallow does not a summer make.

        1. A) it’s not mine but the owner will be very happy when it gets here B) nowhere have I made a claim it will revolutionise anything C) Vast majority of e-bikes are not ‘cool’. The bike this is to be fitted to is. Hence he wanted a Flyky rather than buying an e-bike.

          1. Hope he isn’t disappointed once its installed and working.

            I tend to find that most retro-fit technology (bike or otherwise) is invariably the result of many sets of compromises in the design phase, resulting in an outcome that is also a compromise. Sometimes its a liveable, compromise many times not.

            Still if you can’t buy what you want – you either have to make it yourself or live with what you can get.

            With the money his original bike no doubt cost him I’m sure he can afford a disappointment.

  7. I find the enthusism some people have towards driverless cars amusing in comparison to the ignorance or lack of enthusiasm for personal rapid transit – which potentially offers many of the same benefits without the pesky problems of integrating thousands and thousands of autonomous driverless vehicle with thousands and thousands of vehicles driven by unpredictable, fallible human beings. Google could easily throw their resources behind making PRT more than just a fringe concept in transit, but I assume they’ve worked out they can make more money selling the super-detailed maps to millions of vehicle-owners than PRT control software to hundreds of local authorities.

    Not an attempt to revive the “Is PRT viable?” debate – despite my hopes, its still pretty much on the same slow track to adoption that its been on for the past 40 years. Which should probably be warning enough about trying to predict the future based on technology only in its infancy. For instance, cities might discover that electric bikes plus dedicated protected bike lanes suddenly lead to a surge of cycle travel that further reduces the need for expensive road-building.

    1. But driverless cars are simply PRT. Just without the expensive fixed route infrastructure, but with expensive in-vehicle infrastructure instead. And as such what AVs are likely to disrupt in my view is the current pattern of private car ownership.

      Why have all the expense of owning vehicles, including storing and insuring them, when the costs of just using them could conceivably be much lower? And once we are regularly using these hired vehicles we will find they fit extremely well with other ways of moving that we just step in and out of.

      AVs will not, in my view, be the saviour of motordom.

      1. The disruption is that “expensive in-vehicle infrastructure” will decrease in cost where “expensive fixed route infrastructure” will increase in cost. Agree on the private car ownership model.

    2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Exciting new “emerging” technologies sometimes simply… fail to emerge.

      That’s why I am a pessimist about the potential for unproven technology to fundamentally change urban transport, and an optimist about the potential for better application of existing, underutilised technologies such as buses, trains, bicycles, etc.

        1. Nice link and comment on PRT. Possibly the next step of this exercise would be to ask how much setting up that particular PRT system cost, capacity per hour when truly personal, capacity per hour when bunched. Then we have some metrics to wave a big stick at MOT’s boffins who are producing the B.S. reports.

          Bikes of course really are the exception to all this, and may be the only really viable PRT system for cities.

  8. Personally I see driver-less taxis as a more likely option than driver-less cars. That way they don’t need to be parked; they pick you up from home, take you to work, and then go and pick someone else up. The may even pick up multiple people at once (I imagine a car with say 6 doors and each person having their own personal cabin). When they are not in use they can be parked in areas with less expensive land (outside the city).
    But I see this being 15+ years away in NZ, and personally I would still rather take a train if it wasn’t too much hassle (I quite enjoy a walk to the train station and to home)

  9. Expanding the use of electric bikes… surely another really good reason that NZTA & Auckland Transport should get on with building high quality segregated bike infrastructure.

  10. I‘ll often pass a couple of ebikes in the morning, more so when the weather is better. One woman from work is getting one for christmas. They‘re usually pretty slow. There was one that passed me last week doing more than 40km/hr on the flat.
    Ebikes were common in china 10 years ago after 2 stroke scooters were banned in cities.
    Weather is no problem in Auckland. Wind is more of a constant annoyance than rain. I don‘t have mudgaurds either. I only get properly soaked on a handful of days each year.
    The other real annoyance with cycling is punctures. They‘re more common in wet weather, as you can‘t see glass to avoid it and the water might act as a lubricant allowing the glass to get through the rubber easier. Changing a tube or fixing a puncture when its windy and raining is the pits. This can be pretty much avoided by using suitable tyres like Continental Gatorskin Hardshell or Vittoria Rubino Pro, pumped up to high pressure. I don‘t think I‘ve had a puncture this year.

    1. Googling “tyre pressure weight 700c” will give several graphs of tyre widths vs weight vs pressure.
      My bike, me and my backpack weigh a bit over 110kg. I use a 700x23c on the front and 700x25c on the rear, both pumped up to at least 110psi (or if I use a 700x23c on the rear, 135psi).
      This is what I meant by high pressure. If I weighed less, I‘d use skinnier tyres at similar pressure.

  11. What if we took driver less car technology, and then put it on an e-bike – then we’ll have a revolution: riderless bikes!!

  12. There is lots of parking available in the Auckland region; it’s just scarce in areas densely populated by workers or residents. Public driverless cars would definitely help alleviate parking problems; at least, for commuters going in to the city, for two reasons:

    1) after dropping a carload of people off for work, they could go straight on to taking a new group of passengers from A to B, so the total time spent parking would be less (and importantly, since one car is capable of providing for multiple journeys, we’ll need fewer cars, so a driverless car fleet takes up less space, overall).

    2) During off-peak hours, they could park in areas of the city no-one is currently using. Even relatively central locations like, say, Hamer St and Brigham St on the pier off of Silo Park often have surplus parking during working hours.

    1. ‘after dropping a carload of people off for work, they could go straight on to taking a new group of passengers from A to B’

      You have just described exactly what a bus does, only with many more people much more spatial efficiency. More cars, however they are driven, is no solution for the centre of the city, or anywhere else of high value.

      1. But a bus can’t take you from door to door like a public driverless car can. I’m all for buses but there will always be people who won’t walk 5 or 10 minutes, then wait another 5 or 10 or 15 minutes in the rain or under a leaky “Adshell” shelter to catch a bus.

        The efficiency mightn’t be quite as high as a bus, but it still beats the heck out of the current dominant mode of transport in Auckland, which is a private car transporting 1 or 2 people, and then stored for 8 hours a day taking up precious high-value real estate.

        None of which is to say the two are competing alternatives. I think the best thing Auckland can do to prepare for public driverless cars is a network of congestion-free high occupancy vehicle lanes, which is exactly what we need to get the bus network humming.

        1. …a driverless car can take you door to station though, as it is out in the burbs that the spatial costs of having everyone in their vehicle are affordable. Seriously driverless feeder ‘pods’ and fast spatially efficient Rapid Transit to Metro centres looks like a winning combination to me. And hey we will already have the Rapid Transit well before the fully driverless world is here…. say good buy to expensive car ownership, insurance, and storage, say hello to affordable car hire [driven and otherwise] and especially say hello to fully walkable vibrant urban centres.

          Just don’t embark on a career as a taxi driver!

          For a sense of what a world with AVs might mean it’s useful to watch what is happening in cities that are developing strong cars share schemes like Paris. Here is a good summary from vancouver:

          http://pricetags.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/report-car-sharing-in-metro-vancouver/

          Technology changes look most likely, in my view, to disrupt private vehicle ownership, much more than other things. The numbers of vehicles in cities are likely to fall, and the sums of money tied up in personal vehicle ownership will plummet, this is great for the economy and for place quality. Bad for the car manufactures and sales chain.

  13. My impression of the report was for Transport Authorities to factor the potential of new technologies into their transportation budgets especially in terms of Billion dollar expenditure into new motorways (Auckland’s Motorway ring route and widenings excluded). I did not view it as being anti-public transport.

  14. Spot on analysis! While I agree that driverless cars will be transformational when they arrive due to some synergies with other technology – and they will arrive – we could do far better to highlight this existing revolution.

    I quite enjoy our electric cargo bike that can fit 12 grocery bags and a bear-sized dude at the same time.

  15. What i don’t get is that we’ve had this personalised mass transit for over 100 years – called a taxi. In Melbourne, the taxi might cost $5 every five minutes, but the indian student driving is paid $5 an hour. So eliminating him might at best save 1/12 of the fare. Where did the rest go?

    1. With fuel the driver is the cost problem, but also what is unappealing about using a taxi for many too; that you have to share this intimate space with some random. So electric + driverless and hired is likely to have a winning combo of price point and appeal.

      Think of the paris Autolib but without needing to drive or navigate. But especially not own.

  16. I suspect one of the issues is keeping taxis more expensive than rail or bus. I see groups of friends travelling together and wonder why say four people aren’t in their own taxi rather than on train. They can use the special freeway lanes. They will get to their door quicker. But it is more expensive and no, it isnt the fuel, but the vast layers of ticket clipping so called licenses etc.

    1. There is also the problem of whether the level of appeal will change. Taxis are annoying and you’re normally sitting in the generally uncomfortable backseat. A purpose-built driverless car that was designed to carry people to a mass transit station(or across town) could even have independent pods so that you had your own personal space. And if they were replacing 10 cars or so, you could even make them a little nicer – so effectively everyone is travelling around in a mercedes.

      The big thing you’re missing is that with a normal taxi you pay for the downtime between fares as well. I wonder what the average number of rides per shift is for a normal taxi. It is probably quite variable – while a driverless taxi delivering people around town would operate 24/7 – and the depreciation of the capital cost would be spread over many many more hours and the utilization rate would be much higher. Look at UBER in nyc – the drivers are actually struggling to keep up with the fares, to the point that their quality of life at work is being impinged. A robot would have no such issues.

      This is completely forgetting that if you make both of those costs a much much smaller proportion of the cost of a fare, there is a massive incentive to buy insanely-efficient vehicles in bulk. Which then averages down the cost.

  17. “while a driverless taxi delivering people around town would operate 24/7”

    It may “operate” but it is very unlikely to be earning 24/7. If peak demand (weekday mornings) is to be adequately met there is going to be a lot of these vehicles idle at 3 on a Tuesday morning.

    1. Apples and oranges mate. Was just referring to taxis.

      I just wrote a half a page on how they would work for private purpose use and then hit backspace accidentally which blew it up. I’m too annoyed to repeat the whole process but nutshell…. If you go from 1.1 person per car(the average in Wellington at commute time) to 2 per driverless car you’ve halved the number of needed cars. God forbid 3 or 4 per car. Heaps of car ownership savings there – and a huge portion of those savings will go into spending on other discretionary goods that will boost the local economy.

      Only challenging one will be what happens on weekends when heaps of people want to go to disparate places. I’m sure someone smarter than me like PeterN could calculate what the optimal fleet size would be in such scenarios based on existing behaviour.

      All of this is beside the fact that driverless cars are YEARS in the future and won’t replace active modes as the most preferred or mass transit as the most efficient, they will merely be fantastic complements to existing transport systems.

      I’m really mad that half a page is gone.

      1. Agree with you to a point but:

        Why would there be 2 in the driverless car of the distant future when there is only 1.1 today?

        The reason why there is 1.1 in the average car now is that seldom are two people going the same direction AND at the same time.

        To get 2 per car you’d need to organise it so that the second person was prepared to go out of their way and start earlier than they would normally need, to get where they need to go (and same for 3rd and 4th occupants).

        And if that “going out of their way” was too much of an imposition and the $ and time savings too little why they’d just hire their own driverless taxi from the get go, and voila imaginery efficiency vanishes in a puff of reality.

        Carpooling doesn’t work now for the same reason now and driverless taxis are just carpooling in another sense without the need to park the car when you’r done.
        But what doesn’t work now won’t work in the future just because you wish it to be so.
        And yes you say, a smartphone app could arrange it so that you could more efficiently car pool today and deliver the driverless “Uber” of the future, but that stil lrequires a lot of societal changes and I don’t think people are really going to change that much between now and when driverless future arrives.

        If every 2 lane road had a 2+ occupant driverless car lane then that might change things, but then you’d expect driverless buses to be using those as well so where is the advantage of that driverless car lane when its mixing it with buses that start and stop a lot to pick up and set down people?

        1. Totally entitled to that view of things.

          I think you overestimate resistance to carpooling as a theory rather than a practice – carpooling is a pain in the ass. It is annoying to organize, people we know or live next to often have different times they want to leave, different destinations, different walking distances for parking, and we are not very good at adapting to that kind of information overload.

          If there was an _easy_ way to schedule a pickup at your house for a specific time the day before(or hit a button 30min before) a computer on the other end that calculates the most efficient way to get 2-4 people to a destination(which could just be a shuttle to the nearest train station mind you), and more importantly you could eliminate the cost of parking and having to drive, that would create a compelling argument. Add atop this the time it takes to park and walk over to work(not that I am against walking) and there is then a significant convenience benefit alongside. This is neglecting the economic benefit, particularly as it becomes more expensive to fuel these vehicles – OPEC’s short term tomfoolery aside.

          And by the way, I forgot to note another effect. Lets say we don’t increase the passengers from 1.1 to 2. Some people leave for work at 7:30. Assume a 15 minute commute, and that nobody additional carpools. Well, that car is then available again for an 8:00 pickup. And an 8:30. So it could deliver 3 loads to work over an hour and fifteen mintues with one car. Operational resources would be more than 3 separate cars, but capital resources would be vastly reduced.

          Perhaps most importantly there is a massive convenience benefit to being able to set a fixed pickup time (whenever you want that to be) and walk outside to grab it. The key advantage is that if someone who lives far down the road that you’ve never met is going to your same general vicinity, and it is easy for them to stop by and pick you up, it is taken care of automatically.

          I totally understand your perspective on behaviour but people adapt to notionally undesirable things very quickly when there is incentive to do so. And there would be huge incentives to do so. Keep in mind I say this with the mindset that while driverless cars have been posited for 50 years, we now have cars that can autopark and autocruise, it is just a matter of time before they figure out the rest.

          Again – all of that said – active modes will still be the most preferred(driverless or not, still a ride in a car) and public transport the most efficient(cant move people more cheaply). And they are the only thing we can design for now. Designing for a fantasy future is silly, but thinking logically about scenarios that might result from driverless cars is not. Either way, too much stock is put in the resistance to change. People are by and large pretty rational – look at cycling: no amount of behaviour change will get people cycling when it is really dangerous. So until a convenient way to carpool exists, we wont see much there.

          Technology is disruptive. In essence it is the Walkman effect applied to public transport. And by the way, the Walkman was generally derided by analysts in the consumer products industry as “unnecessary” and they predicted it would be unpopular. Just take a look walking through your city this week at how many people have earbuds in, as the iThings they’re listening to all derive from the insight of the person who took the Walkman to market.

          1. “we now have cars that can autopark and autocruise, it is just a matter of time before they figure out the rest.”

            Yes, they said that in the 50’s too about flying cars, nuclear powered cars, and quite a few other technology DOA’s too as I recall.
            “yes we have small nuclear reactors, its a matter of time before they figure out the rest…”,
            “yes we’ll have radiation fallout from nuclear wars, but we’ll have pills you can take to counter that….”
            “yes, drivers are a hazard to road safety, but we have driverless cars to take care of that…”

            “Technology is disruptive. In essence it is the Walkman effect applied to public transport”

            Anyway we already have those things you describe – its called a bus (or a train), it comes on a set schedule you don’t even have to summon it, it just turns up, and when you’ve finishing using it, it just disappears.

            How people use these will change, but not in the way you or I currently imagine when driverless buses/taxis/trains eventually arrive.

            You cite the Walkman case as “now obvious – yet derided when first released” technology to justify why robot taxis will solve congestion.

            Prior to a Walkman the trend was to carry your own music tape player, a huge “boombox” and literally blast your music to yourself and the world as a personal statement.

            Walkman (in the US at least) was, and still is, a fuck you response to that, which was successful, but all it did was repackage the tape player with inbuilt speaker (already existing tech) into a smaller form factor the size of the tape cassette it played and used headphones to avoid the need for on-board amplifiers and speakers for the sound. Typical post WWII Japanese miniaturisation at its best and logical conclusiuon.

            However, not everything that seems obvious now in hindsight, was then, personal music was obvious and not a new trend, but Sony went “Ok, Walkman a big hit, personal TV must be the next big thing”, uh oh, wrong, very wrong, very very wrong,

            Watchman did not take off, even watching TV on your smartphone which is the logical grandchild (with a few greats in the way) of the Watchman occurs but is still a mixed bag to some degree compared to twitter facebook photos, and streaming music that every smart phone user does it seems. Even those Sony TV glasses for watching TV tanked, so music on the go yes, TV on the go, not. Even time shifted TV not so popular.

            But who’d have thought that back then? Not any of those pundits who decried then lauded the Walkman as the best invention since sliced bread and proclaimed the Watchman as the true invention of the century.

            The Next big thing for Sony after Walkman was the Discman a portable CD player which was simply a format shifted Walkman,
            Minidiscs, the next iteration, big in Japan, nowhere else, too much DRM and lack of openness.
            Everyone else stuck with tape/CDs then moved on to MP3s leaving Minidiscs, Walkmans and Discmans in the dust.

            And from this side of the Sony (or most Japanese consumer electronics) empires looking back, in the last 40 years they’ve individually and collectively had more misses than hits, so even they can’t predict the future like they used to. Sure they ship a lot of tech but its mostly “me too” versions of other peoples products. Not truly innovative products of the old days of Japan Inc.

            Predicting the future and just as importantly its impact and timeframes is fraught with difficulties and just because (a) works doesn’t mean that b c and d will work as well or even work the same way,
            People may decide that now they have (a) they don’t need b c or d and will instead wait for e like they did for the Walkman.

            But lets assume that your Robot taxi idea comes to pass 20 or 30 years hence, and so we can summon one to our door, and to save money we also have 2 mates who live nearby share the cab to the train station to reduce congestion on the roads to 1/3rd and also to split costs 3 ways.

            We know we have to each get the 8:15am train to get to work by 8:30 and we know the last pickup has to be made no later than 10 minutes before then, at 8:05am, so we stagger the taxi to make 3 stops, your place first, then passenger number 2 and lastly passenger number 3 by 8:05am to make the 10 minute dash to the train station to be there for the 8:15am train.

            Sounds like heaven right? The “just in time” transport for the masses we’ve always dreamed of?

            Well I can guarantee that unless you and your mates are always ready to go *before* their appointed time, that you will never make the train station on time most days, because with 3 stops and unless each of the 3 passengers is ready outside their front door for pickup at exactly the appointed pickup time you won’t make the next stop on time and will then miss the following pickup time..

            That cascading effect of lateness means that unless you have buffer built in to each persons pick up time and they also always are ready on their appointed time, it won’t work.

            Thats a classic scheduling problem in real life, that manufacturers and planners or all kinds have to face.

            The way to deal with it is to have slack in the pick up times for everyone, so they all have to be ready ahead of their appointed times to cater for the innate variability in the system caused by external factors like other people, traffic delays, accidents, weather etc.

            If you, as the first guy have to be ready first, any lateness on your part will impact the next two pick ups making them late.
            So you have to be ready first and in advance of the pickup time, every time. The next guy also the same story, he is ready and waiting for you to arrive so he can share the cab, and the 3rd guy the same.

            Add up all that slack time and eventually you and passenger s#2 and #3 may say, bugger it, I’ll catch my own taxi, to save this mucking about and being ready too soon, so it will be one that will wait for me and doesn’t have to rush off to meet a timetable for the next pick up.

            So, you may all end up at the station at 8:15, it will just take 3 robot taxis (or trips) to do it though.
            So how does that reduce congestion? It doesn’t. 3 trips whether 1 taxi making 3 trips or 3 taxis making 1 trip each is still 3 times the congestion on the single shared taxi model which you suggest is how it will “save the world”.

            Why? because the people in the system are what bugger the system up, not the system itself. Any system has to cater for the innate humanness of humans.
            And we are an unpredictable and fickle bunch at the “atomic level” of individuals, and while technology can help manage this to a degree, its only a help,
            If the technology doesn’t allow for that it will fail to solve the problem.

            Its also why carpooling doesn’t work so well either – too much slack in everyone is required to make it work. So its all “hurry up and wait”

            Also all this sounds a lot like maybe buses with a fixed pick up schedules and pick up points can and do actually solve the underlying congestion problem more efficiently than all the faffing about with robot taxis.
            Which will need a lot of technology to deliver to even get into the race to become part of the PT/transport world.

            All you need to make buses and trains work is frequency, not technology.

            And we can do that today, not in 20 or 30 years time when the “driverless” technology is ready.

            Oh, I’m still waiting for my personal jetpack, flying car and nuclear power thats “too cheap to meter”.

      2. A lot of interesting stuff in here! I suppose my main take-away would be that driverless cars, when or if they happen, are most likely to disrupt private car ownership. In essence, you are arguing that they will reduce the costs of not owning your own car.

        The taxi comparison is a good one, I think. At present, taxis can give people who live without a car a way of making trips that can’t be done on PT or on foot. (A colleague of mine – expatriated New Yorker – argues that taxis should be seen as part of the PT system. I think this is also what you’re getting at.) The problem is that taxis are expensive, because labour costs for drivers are high in NZ.

        Driverless cars would bring down the cost of using a taxi by stripping out the labour costs. That will, in turn, make it easier to downsize the number of cars per household. That in turn is likely to have a positive effect on public transport usage, for two reasons:
        1. Car ownership is negatively correlated with PT use – because cars have high fixed costs and low operating costs, it’s rational to use them as much as possible once you’ve made the decision to purchase.
        2. Driverless cars won’t reduce the cost of land and as a result parking costs will remain high. As I showed in another recent post (http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2014/11/13/can-public-transport-save-households-money/), parking costs are the main factor that makes driving less affordable on a day-to-day basis. This will not change!

        1. I completely agree. But to use a less long-winded (than my prior posts) concurrence:
          1. I completely agree with “when or if,” but I suggest it is “when not if.” 😉 Caution is warranted, but that doesn’t mean insights can’t be sought on possible scenario impacts.
          2. Yes indeed, they will vastly reduce the costs of not owning your own car. Same degree of independence just less planning required – and we are at heart beings that hate planning – just look at our urban planning from 1950-now……. that was probably uncalled for.
          3. The taxi and personal vehicle ownership structure will be heavily disrupted. The conclusion that vehicle numbers would increase was amusing – they need to think harder about the varied processes that will influence such structures in a world where the driver isnt tied to their car’s operation.
          4. PT and Active modes will become far more heavily used – this is unavoidable with or without driverless cars as consumer preferences will drive it. The key question is whether land use planning changes occur to meet consumer preferences – as they enable such mode use.
          5. Not sure where the idea that land will be cheaper comes from? I don’t think anyone would suggest that.
          6. You’re absolutely right. As I said before, the taxi will essentially cease to be an expensive luxury, and instead be an integral cog in the effective public transport system.

          1. Spot on – excellent summary!

            While you certainly aren’t arguing that land prices will fall, a lot of the analysis of future transport demand in NZ seems to assume away land prices entirely. The NZIER paper certainly didn’t consider them.

            This is quite strange, especially because just about every new transport technology has increased, rather than decreased, the aggregate value of urban land.

          2. Fully agree Tom and Peter. Especially 3., evidence is clearly there from nascent car share schemes, and these are yet to have the lower cost impact from AVs.

  18. And here you go, more thoughtfulness on our driverless future:
    http://www.humantransit.org/2014/11/luca-guala-driverless-buses-will-be-more-transformative-than-driverless-taxis.html

    Also clearly means the AKL and WTGN passenger rail networks could go driverless without expensive full separation from freighters or removal of level crossings….

    Great potential cost savings and service improvements, especially longer running hours and increased frequency at little additional cost.

  19. “Also clearly means the AKL and WTGN passenger rail networks could go driverless without expensive full separation from freighters or removal of level crossings” – nowhere in the world do driverless passenger trains coexist with freights or operate over level crossings. It’s hard enough to go driverless on fully segregated passenger-only railways, eg the London Underground and the New York subway are nowhere near that stage.

    1. Exactly Mike, that’s my very point. Nowhere in the world are there driverless cars in mixed traffic either, but if that is doable, as claimed, then clearly running a mixed rail network with autonomous trains would be several degrees more possible.

      It’s dead easy to operate autonomously on completely separate networks, can happen anywhere. The reason London and NY are so slow to do it is because of political obstacles, ie the unions fighting to keep their members jobs.

  20. I read that report and it covered some good ground. I did notice something though, did you see their people? http://nzier.org.nz/people/
    It’s an exclusively male outfit, perhaps some gender diversity might have broadened their thinking. (Maybe not, but when I clicked through to that page, I noticed).

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