The discussion around driverless vehicles has increased dramatically over the last few years and I suspect will only continue to escalate in the years to come. What’s also increased is the almost religious zeal by which some preach the technology, promising it will deliver some form utopian future. Many of the common claims used by were covered off in an opinion piece by Rodney Hide yesterday. There are a couple of points highlighted in there I want to explore further.
Improving safety on our roads remains the biggest promise of driverless vehicles. It means 300 fewer people in New Zealand and more than 1.2 million worldwide might not need to die on roads. Especially early on, this improved safety will be achieved by the vehicles being much more cautious on our roads as human drivers are much less predictable. More cautious also means slower and how will a trip taking longer by being driverless affect usage. Of course as I’ve pointed out before, it won’t take long for pedestrians to catch on and effectively reclaim the streets simply be threatening to walk across the road and all cars will stop.
Of course, driverless vehicles will only be as good as the technology behind them and based on. For example Uber’s driverless car that was being trialled in San Francisco ran red lights and performed dangerous turns that could have injured people on bikes.
2. Touch of a button mobility
The idea most talked about with driverless vehicles is that people will no longer own a car themselves but instead they will be companies like Uber providing fleets of vehicles for people to use at the push of a button.
Your ride will arrive with a tap of your phone. It will whisk you to your destination and disappear to the next fare.
That’s fine and a great vision but what does that mean in reality, especially when everyone is using the system. Particularly in the suburbs, does this mean there will need to be enough vehicles nearby so people never need to wait more than a few minutes and if so, where are these cars stored. Perhaps they’re just roaming the streets, racking up the kilometres just waiting for someone to need to make a journey. Do we really want to encourage the streets to be constantly filled with vehicles all waiting for a passenger?
3. Land use impacts
If the driverless utopia visions are correct then the land use impacts of the technology could be just as, if not more significant than the transport impacts. Rodney hits at a few of these in his article
No need to own, maintain or garage a car. No need to park it.
No wasted space for the parking of cars on the side of the road. No car parks.
If the promised revolution comes anywhere near as soon as some like to suggest then councils and transport agencies need to dramatically change their thinking now on many issues, especially parking. For example, while the Unitary Plan removed parking minimums from many locations, they will still be required in lower density developments. This could saddle property owners with a ‘feature’ which could shortly be obsolete. Freeing developments from parking and associated driveway infrastructure would likely have significant impacts on both the costs of development and the amount of land needed.
Perhaps an even greater impact from a city point of view is the amount of urban land in many of our town and metro centres that suddenly gets freed up and can be used for other purposes. It is interesting to think what impact that would have on urban land prices. As an example, in the map below of Botany, red is buildings and grey is parking.
By removing the need for parking it also means we do not need to invest in expensive park & ride and parking buildings become an obsolete asset. This raises the question of whether we should be making policy changes now in advance of the introduction of driverless vehicles such as divesting or redeveloping parking facilities now and diverting any planned expenditure on new parking facilities elsewhere.
4. Road impacts
Related to above, what happens to our roads if we no longer need to provide on-street parking. Demands for on-street parking by residents and businesses remains one of the biggest barriers to implementing better streets, providing more space for walking, cycling or transit. If driverless vehicles are coming then there should be no reason why agencies like Auckland Transport can’t be much more aggressive in rolling out these networks.
Interestingly the transition to driverless vehicles might not be as smooth as some assume. As this article from the BBC on research in the UK highlights, driverless vehicles will more safety conscious and therefore likely drive slower and more defensively than meat bag driven ones. That could result in a reduction in road capacity until there is enough of them on the roads.
5. Transit impacts
When reading the article, I was wondering at what point I would see the comment below, to be honest I was surprised it was so far near the end.
The investment in trains in Auckland will look as clever as if we had built canals for barges pulled by horses.
The idea that driverless vehicles will suddenly replace the need for well-designed public transport is frankly absurd. As we’ve commented before, driverless technology will also be able to be applied to buses and light rail, and it’s already possible to have driverless trains. Removing the driver will also removes a lot of the marginal cost of services so it means we can run more services for the same amount of money.
Additionally, while driverless vehicles are ultimately likely to improve road throughput, it still won’t be enough in dense cities. As Jarrett Walker points out, it’s not an engineering problem, it’s a geometry problem.
So a bus with 4o people on it today is blown apart into, what, little driverless vans with an average of two each, a 20-fold increase in the number of vehicles? It doesn’t matter if they’re electric or driverless. Where will they all fit in the urban street? And when they take over, what room will be left for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, pocket parks, or indeed anything but a vast river of vehicles?
A driverless vehicle from your house is probably as likely to drop you at a train or busway station to continue your journey as it is take you all the way yourself.
6. Job impacts
The impact the technology will have on jobs is one not often discussed but rapid adoption is likely to be seriously disruptive to all of society.
There won’t be neighbourhood auto shops.
There will simply be fleets of driverless vehicles to maintain. The vehicles will be run 24/7 and serviced accordingly.
The savings will be dramatic. There will be no drivers. Freight and people will be shifted quickly, safely and efficiently.
Driverless vehicles will transport your children to school like a taxi, cheaper than a bus.
A trip to Christchurch will be done overnight while you sleep. The fare will be the running cost plus your minuscule share of the vehicle’s depreciation and maintenance.
According to Stats NZ, as of 2015 there were the following numbers of people employed in these industries:
- 18,970 people in Automotive Repair and Maintenance
- 17,390 people in Motor Vehicle and Motor Vehicle Parts Retailing
- 7670 people in Motor Vehicle and Motor Vehicle Parts Wholesaling
- 36120 people in Road Transport – this includes both freight (72%) and passenger transport (28%)
Combined, these make up about 4% of all jobs in NZ and I’m sure there are many others directly or indirectly associated with our road transport system. Now obviously not all will disappear with the advent of driverless technology but a good number would, almost certainly more than half. If it were to happen suddenly then the impact on employment in NZ would be greater than the Global Financial Crisis had where the number of people employed dropped by 2.5%.
6. Financial impacts
Finally, driverless vehicles are likely to have some serious financial implications with some potentially massive savings. One, even acknowledged in ATAP was that it “could present opportunities to defer or avoid future investment in additional road capacity”. In other words, we don’t need to spend more on new/bigger roads if the technology makes the current ones safer and have greater capacity. It also saves money in other areas too, such as road policing which is currently funded out of fuel taxes to the tune of over $300 million annually.
I do see driverless vehicles becoming an important part of our transport system but I don’t think they’re going to deliver the utopia some believe.