Last year we started to take a look at an emerging technology that some claim will revolutionise urban transport – driverless cars. My view is that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – if we wanted to, we could easily get the purported benefits by investing in existing, proven technology:
While driverless cars (or hoverboards for that matter) sound exciting, we can’t afford to pin all of our hopes on them. The pragmatic, proven way forward for transport in a big city is the same as it’s always been: Give people good transport choices by investing in efficient rapid transit networks, frequent bus services, and safe walking and cycling options.
If we want a safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly transport system, we can achieve it now by making smart policy changes. We don’t have to wait.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we did want to wait for driverless cars to solve our self-imposed problems. How long would it take, exactly?
The wait would be a function of three factors:
- First, how long it takes until driverless cars are proven and widely available for purchase in New Zealand. Most people agree that the technology is improving and may be ready for wide deployment sometime in the next decade. (Obviously, regulatory barriers could slow uptake as well.)
- Second, how long it will take the New Zealand vehicle fleet to turn over – i.e. how long until the cars that’s currently on the road is scrapped and replaced. At the moment, the average NZ vehicle is around 13 years old, meaning that we’d expect it to take at least 13 years for half of the fleet to be renewed. Full replacement of every car on the road could take 25-40 years – a quick glimpse at Trademe shows that people are still buying and selling cars built in the early 1980s.
- Third, and possibly most importantly, how rapidly driverless cars gain market share. Even after the introduction of driverless cars, most people will continue buying self-drive cars, which will dramatically slow the transition to a driverless fleet.
People have spent a lot of time thinking about the first two points, but I haven’t seen any commentary on the third one. Fortunately, we can draw upon some real-world data to get a sense of how rapidly consumers take up new vehicle technologies. Over the last decade, hybrid and electric cars have become commonly available, with cumulative global sales figures in the millions. While they tend to be more expensive to purchase, they offer savings on fuel costs and improvements in environmental performance.
So: How have consumers responded to recent technological transformations?
In short, they have hardly noticed. People are not rushing to give up their petrol (and self-driving) vehicles, even though there are now viable alternatives. A recent study from the US has found that hybrid vehicles’ market share has stayed low, even though car-makers have introduced many more new models. Over a decade after the Toyota Prius first arrived on the market, hybrids account for only one in every thirty new car sales in the US:
Obviously, uptake of hybrid and electric vehicles has been faster in some places than others. However, a 2013 New York Times article on new vehicle technologies found that alternative vehicles have failed to capture a majority of the market even in the most favourable environments:
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — It would seem to be a good time to own an electric car in Santa Monica. From the charging stations dotted around town to the dedicated public parking spaces — all provided at no cost by the city — Santa Monica has rolled out the welcome mat for electric cars.
But even here, in this wealthy, environmentally conscious city of 90,000 west of Los Angeles, only a core group of owners has switched from traditional gasoline-powered cars.
Less than 4 percent of registered cars run only on battery power, according to an analysis by the industry researcher Edmunds.com of data from R.L. Polk, which records vehicle registrations nationwide. Hybrids, which run on some combination of gasoline and battery power, account for 15.5 percent, the data says, but many of those are traditional hybrids, which do not require a plug-in cord for recharging.
In other words, after a decade, over 80% of Santa Monica’s car fleet is still composed of conventional petrol cars. And that’s about as good as it gets anywhere in the US, which is on the leading edge of many new trends in vehicle technologies.
The picture isn’t much different outside of the US. Research on vehicle fleets in 19 countries shows that there are only two countries where hybrids and electric vehicles account for more than 1% of vehicle fleets. Norway (largely electric cars) and the Netherlands (mostly hybrids) were far and away the leaders in uptake, due to extraordinarily generous subsidies for buyers. Everywhere else lagged far behind:
In short, people don’t seem to be rushing out to buy new vehicle technologies. Although we all have the option to buy electric now, few people do in practice. It is very likely that driverless cars, when or if they become readily available, will follow a similar pattern. Initially, at least, they will be costlier and seem riskier than self-drive cars. Current rates of uptake for hybrid and electric cars suggest that it could take half a century or more for petrol cars to vanish from the road. Why should the transition to driverless cars be any faster?
All in all, recent market realities should encourage caution about driverless cars. Slow rates of uptake for new vehicle technologies mean that they aren’t going to solve our problems any time soon. A 2014 London School of Economics report on the state of urban mobility (pdf) described the dilemma of vehicle technology innovation well. They noted:
Regarding the development of new transport technologies, key actors (above all the automotive sector) have failed to convert technological progress into substantive improvements in energy efficiency and vehicle emissions or more broadly transform modes of accessibility in cities.
The clear implication is that if we want better transport outcomes, we must implement better transport policies. The data shows that waiting on new technologies is not a sensible option. If we want to lower the road toll, we must invest in safe roads, including protected cycle infrastructure. If we want a workable solution to congestion, we must build rapid transit infrastructure, bus lanes and walking and cycling improvements to give people the choice to avoid it.
There is no realistic alternative – so why don’t we get on with it?