Who’s driving who anyway?

When contemplating a career in transport these days (or just contemplating transport), it seems important to have your head around autonomous vehicles, electric and shared vehicles, and to have some opinion on them. Meanwhile it feels like people in the field of autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles or any technological development in transport don’t have to have their head around public transport, active transport or urban planning, but that’s another matter (or maybe it isn’t).  I have been trying to work out what I think about autonomous vehicles, shared vehicles, electric vehicles and what they might mean to a transport planner, a parent and a car-free person.

Ten years ago I organised a debate ‘Sustainable transport means seriously fewer cars’ and the idea was to get those that saw our urban transport woes being solved purely by technological changes with continued car ownership vs those that saw the need (and possibility) to change the way we do things and own things. I couldn’t find enough people for the negative team so the debate turned into a forum of the good things about shifting away from car ownership and use. So I was still left pondering where the world sat with this question – what was the potential for a mass shift away from privately owned cars?

Since then, the next generation of electric cars with the help of lithium batteries has rapidly developed, along with autonomous vehicles and then there are the shared vehicle and ride services. In someways each of these developments has kind of excited me and freaked me out at the same time. I love the idea of sharing a car or a ride. When I need a car, I borrow one, knowing it would just be sitting there otherwise.  And I was a big believer in hitchhiking – when dropping someone at the airport, I had once collected the three people waiting at the bus stop and dropped them off at various places on my way home. My passengers were surprised but I can’t stand the inefficiency and lack of community that our individualised untrusting world creates (which is epitomised by private car ownership and use). About thirteen years ago, I had learnt about some smart features of cars related to pedestrian safety, including detection, autonomous braking and airbags on the bonnet, and I was excited about this but not so much about completely autonomous vehicles which my professor at the time was predicting well ahead of the pack.  So I see some advantages to some of these technologies if used well, but I fear that the monetising and marketing of these technologies isn’t inline with what the world needs.

Do we need or want vehicle’s picking us up and dropping us where we need to go from door to door? I believe it obliterates some fundamentally important aspects of sustainable transport systems. These include exercise, efficiency of movement and interaction.

Firstly, there is a good chance that such a model of transport will obliterate our own movement, with people not walking or cycling to public transport stops or from door to door, or not even having to walk from a carpark to the door, autonomous shared vehicles could make incidental exercise non-existent. While people can exercise at other times of the day, having it structured into your life and moving at some stage of your movement through your city just makes a lot of sense. There is the possibility that having autonomous vehicles as a service might encourage occasional use, but I imagine it will be a subscription type model separate from public transport so it will have minimal marginal costs, in a similar way to current car use.

Secondly, while autonomous shared vehicles overcome some issues with car use, such as, how much material and space idle vehicles take up, it doesn’t deal with the fundamental inefficiencies of the movement of cars as a way to carry people from one place to another which I see most clearly when describing our transport system with an entropic-type variable.  Just picture relatively big, heavy, fast vehicles moving in all sorts of direction and compare it to other modes of transport which either go along set routes or tracks and carry many people (in the case of buses and trains) or are lighter and slower (in the case of bike and pedestrians) and you see the main basis of my argument.  There would still be a gluttonous need for infrastructure, space and management tools to satisfy all these autonomous vehicles fulfilling the whims of their passengers.  There is potential for induced demand as we take away some of the costs associated with car use, which could add another spanner in the works.

Thirdly, cities are a place of exchange, and incidental social interactions are an important element of a vibrant functioning city with caring citizens. Already, people driving cars have much less contact with others than those using other modes of transport. My fear is that autonomous vehicles will reduce our exchanges, because there will be no need for drivers to make eye contact with pedestrians and cyclists and exchange informal signals. This might seem trivial, but needing to watch out for your fellow human beings could be more important than we realise. Perhaps, autonomous vehicles users will spend more time looking out at the street but I feel like the technophilic world that thrives on attention and advertising, won’t be interested in creating outward looking citizens.

I understand that there can be benefits from these technologies, but I would just love a more systematic approach by the people pushing technologies and a critical examination of the social issues around them. I’m sure there are people working in this space, but we need to be careful with what we wish for at this time where we should be using our resources and research effort wisely. I’d love to hear your perspectives on these technologies and services.




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