The arrival of driverless autonomous vehicles (AVs) represents a unique opportunity for a fundamental change in urban mobility. However, if public authorities do not take an active part in their roll-out, we could end up in a dystopian scenario with even more private car traffic on the road.
The latest policy paper from UITP, the International Association of Public Transport is entitled, “Autonomous vehicles: a potential game changer for urban mobility”. It sets out various scenarios for the roll-out of AVs, depending on how they are regulated and used.
In the worst case, it found, this could actually lead to more cars on the road. Travelling by car would become more comfortable and commuting time potentially more productive; that would lead to more congestion as car travel becomes more appealing, as well as due to the number of empty AVs idling on the roads.
However, there is an alternative. AVs could be put to use in shared fleets as “robo-taxis”, mini-buses or in car-sharing fleets, and as part of an effective public transport network. That could dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road, by providing transport for people and places it was too difficult to reach before, plugging first/last-mile gaps and feeding into public transport trunk lines. AVs could play a vital role in improving access to public transport and doing their bit for social inclusion, providing more mobility options for the elderly, children, disadvantaged communities and less populated areas for example.
Shared fleets, integrated with traditional high-capacity public transport, offer the possibility of a better urban future, cutting noise and environmental pollution, and improving traffic efficiency. In the process, it would also liberate vast amounts of urban space that was previously given over for parking for other purposes. Considering that 1.2m people around the world die each year in car-related accidents, 90 per cent of which are due to human error, the road safety benefits are also significant.
Ensuring the successful roll-out of AVs, which are already being trialled in many cities, is also contingent on the use of fully driverless operation. Without this, AVs will not be able to form a new mode of transport, and would be unable to enhance existing public transport.
Public authorities must take an active role in the roll-out of AVs to ensure their shared use. That means measures to encourage shared mobility and limit single car occupancy, such as road pricing or taxation: most car-owners are not used to car- and ride-sharing so will not accept these forms of car-use naturally. AVs are also a prime opportunity for public authorities to implement and provide “Mobility as a Service” platforms, as whoever controls these platforms has an influence over travel behaviour.
Trials should now begin on public roads to see how best to integrate AVs into the mobility eco-system. Preparations should also be made to tackle the impact on employment – as some driving jobs could disappear and others needing specific skills could arise. Acting now to encourage more shared mobility will help pave the way for the shared use of AVs, and for a better urban future.
Alain Flausch is secretary general of UITP, the International Association of Public Transport.