Two weeks ago posted some potential doomsday scenarios that could arrive from the introduction of driverless cars. They were intended solely as a bit of fun although some took them a bit seriously. This week the Herald on Sunday went big on driverless cars talking up the potential for the technology, including an op-ed and dedicating their editorial to it.
We read today of a future of driverless transport with a mixture of excitement and foreboding.
Excitement, because it offers the prospect of fewer accidents, fewer injuries and fatalities, fewer cars parked on city streets, fewer cars everywhere.
For along with driverless cars we will get the ability to use them more efficiently, ordering them with a phone app rather than owning one that is parked somewhere most of the time. They will drive closer together at permitted speeds, co-ordinating their movements more safely than human drivers can manage.
I think on the safety aspects alone driverless cars will become an essential part of the transport mix. I can’t think of any other area in our society where we so casually accept over 300 people being killed and over 11,000 being injured every year. While they wouldn’t have to be electric, I also suspect any roll out of driverless cars would speed up the adoption of electric vehicles which so far has been close to non-existent. This would obviously help reduce emissions and therefore help improve both the environment and people’s health.
Where I think the benefits are less certain are in many of the claims made about just what impact driverless cars will have on transport issues such as congestion or travel habits and preferences. For example, some experts now believe that while the benefits of cars driving closer together and co-ordinating their movements will increase road capacity, much or even all of that could end up being negated by vehicles making additional trips.
I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the potential use case for driverless cars and one thing that’s struck me – and for which I haven’t really seen commentary on – is just how things would work in reality. What concerns me is that in many ways we could be heading towards a situation where driverless cars represent combining some of the worst features of driving with the some of the worst features of public transport – particularly the part where you have to wait for a service to turn up. That would hardly be the transport revolution we’ve been promised.
Let me explain. There are two main scenarios that have emerged as to how driverless cars could be integrated into our future. One is an extension of the status quo where individuals own vehicles and the second is that we move to a taxi type model where the vehicles are owned by a company and you just book a trip when you need one. Below are some of the downsides to each of these scenarios that may make driverless vehicles worse than what we have now. Before going into them I’ve assumed places like Albany, Botany and Manukau and many others are bustling from all housing and commercial buildings that have been developed on what became unneeded carparks – in the process going a long way to helping addressing housing issues.
This is an extension of the model we have now. To many people cars can be more than just a transport tool, they can reflect individual personalities and act as an extension of our homes while at the same time being a part of the family – we often give them their own bedroom after all. It’s for these reasons I can see a lot of people still wanting to own a car rather than use the taxi/sharing model many predict.
Positively driverless cars may allow households to reduce the number of vehicles they own, for example instead of owning two or three cars many families may only need one. Perhaps it drives one parent to work early in the morning before quickly returning home to pick up the other parent and child, dropping the latter at school before driving before dropping the second parent at their workplace in a different part of town. It would then drive home and park waiting to be summoned for the afternoon.
It’s the latter part I’m particularly concerned about. Let’s say you’re at work and want to go home so you pull out your phone and open an app to summon the car. Do you then have to sit and wait for the vehicle to come and collect you, possibly from quite far away. Instantly we’ve added one of the most frustrating aspects of PT to the private car, having to wait for service. It could be a bit like walking to a bus stop and seeing a half hourly bus just pulling out leaving you with a long wait for the next one.
One of the strongest features of cars is that they essentially have an unlimited frequency. Will people put up with potentially having to wait a while for their ride home? Obviously some people could pre-plan their travel times so the car turns up as they’re leaving work but many people don’t work to a set schedule.
Many people are predicting that in the future no one will own a car and instead we’ll all shift to a taxi/sharing/Uber model where we order a trip on our phones and a car turns up to whisk us to our destination. One big predicted advantage is we’ll be able to get better utilisation our of our vehicle fleet instead of them sitting idle for 95% of the day. Just how many driverless vehicles a city will need is unknown although suggestions from study on come cities suggest perhaps a low as only 30% of our current fleet. This means less vehicles overall although at peak it doesn’t necessarily mean less on the road at one time.
Because there are expected be so many vehicles there should be coverage across much of the city however as you’d expect the best coverage will be in areas with higher density. This is quite well shown by this map Uber released last year to mark their millionth trip in NZ. It shows trips taken with the service over a three month period (they say start and end points have been altered to protect privacy).
Close to the city wait times for a service will be fairly fast however those living in suburbs further out people will likely have a longer wait unless companies dedicate a lot more resource to providing coverage – again introducing the wait time component that PT has.
The other PT like aspect is that of course you don’t own the vehicle. I suspect like taxis today there would be different levels of service available but tied in with the point above, the more expensive/exclusive services could result in longer wait times to travel anywhere.
Another aspect that gets lost is the extension of the house aspect private vehicles have.How many people that drive use their car to store stuff should they need it. Perhaps kids gear for after school activities or your golf clubs for that round at a council subsidised golf course – basically things you might not want to be lugging into work to sit next to your desk all day (if you work at a desk).
One last set of thoughts, what about animals. For example, many people drive their dogs to the beach or dog parks and of course to see a vet. Hopping into a car that smells like a wet dog has just been in it is hardly going to be a pleasant experience, especially if you don’t like dogs or worse are allergic to them. Similarly, what about parents with kids, will these cars carry a few car seats around in case one is needed with parents needing to go through the process of setting it up in the driverless car before every trip.
The situations above and many others could quite easily be addressed through specialised services targeting different parts of the market. Of course to do so is likely to involve additional costs, both financial and time.
I can’t help but feeling that driverless cars will require more than just a technology change but changes to how we think about transport too. I suspect ultimately we’ll ended up with a mix of the two scenarios above – which in itself is a departure from what we have now. Once available, adoption by and the disruption to the taxi market will happen fairly fast but that after an initial burst adoption will slow down as private buyers only get them when it’s time to buy a new car. Given the average age of vehicles in NZ is over 13 years that will take a while.