Driverless cars and Mobility as a Service can improve our world – so long as they're properly regulated

Uber-branded driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Image: Getty.

New technology has the potential to improve public transport and increase mobility – but we won’t reap the benefits without the right intervention by government. If new technologies are not implemented properly they will potentially worsen health outcomes, reduce safety, increase congestion and make it harder for the government to achieve their objectives.

Electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) are intrinsically linked issues that will develop together to provide an on-demand autonomous vehicle service (“Uber without drivers”) alongside other public and private transport modes. This will sit alongside the private ownership of electric and autonomous vehicles which continues the conventional model.

We are already seeing journey planning apps evolve from merely providing travel information to linking through to transport service provision. This will evolve to a full MaaS model, where various public and private transport options are presented alongside each other, with ordering and payment for any services used handled by the app. This will include on-demand autonomous vehicle rides.

MaaS has potential to help achieve the health, wellbeing, air pollution and congestion objectives of government, but only through good user interface design where active and sustainable transport are included and prioritised. But if not planned properly, active travel options, which cannot currently earn revenue for the app providers, could be deprioritised in the app user interface (that is, shown with less prominence, not ‘front-and-centre’).

Citymapper, for example, shows Uber alongside other modes and allows booking from within the app. Government will therefore need to influence third party app design to prioritise walking and public transport use in order to achieve their sustainable transport aims. This could be achieved by restrictions on the supply of transit data – for example, requiring journeys that can be completed on foot in under 20 minutes to have walking as the first or most prominent option. It could also be achieved by purchasing prominence in the user interface in much the same way advertising is purchased.


Autonomous vehicles, arranged on a shared basis, could allow more people to stop owning cars. In a positive scenario walking, cycling and public transport would remain the main public transport modes with autonomous vehicles used on rare occasions for specific reasons, such as visiting places with poor public transport or collecting large items.

However, if the pricing of autonomous vehicle rides is set too close to that of public transport fares there is potential for mode shift away from sustainable transport to autonomous vehicles. If the autonomous vehicle ride cost is too low relative to public transport fares this will also encourage low occupancy levels. This negative scenario would cause increased congestion and have worse health outcomes as active travel stages of journeys decrease.

Electric and autonomous electric vehicles are not zero emission: air pollution is generated in their production and when the electricity for their operation is generated. More significantly, they are responsible for roadside particulate matter (PM) pollution from braking systems and tire wear. Therefore, the introduction of electric vehicles and autonomous electric vehicles should not be permitted to facilitate an increase in private or private hire vehicle trips.

Autonomous vehicles are presented as being safer and requiring less road space because they can drive closer together. However, to achieve these benefits all vehicles on the road will need to be autonomous and coordinated. Complete adoption of autonomous vehicles is unlikely any time soon, without an intervention such as banning conventional vehicles.

The benefits of autonomous vehicles will not appear automatically. As with any technology, we need to ensure it is regulated properly – and we don’t lose sight of the healthier society we were hoping to achieve.

Steve Chambers is policy & research coordinator at Living Streets, the charity for every day walking, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

Meet the Museum of London's latest exhibit: a disgusting, giant lump of fat

A pipe clogged with lovely, lovely fat. Image: Thames Water.

The Museum of London has been teaching visitors about the capital’s history for over 50 years now. It contains exhibits on the Romans, the Plague, the Great Fire and the Blitz. It even houses the Lord Mayor’s Coach, a great red and gold thing, which horses pull about the streets of the City each November for the Lord Mayor’s Show.

So it’s presumably in keeping with this tradition, of presenting the most educational and most beautiful artefacts from London’s history, that the museum’s newest exhibit will be a congealed mass of fat, oil, grease, wet wipes and sanitary products.

The Lord Mayor’s Coach and the fatberg (left). Image: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons (coach); Museum of London (fatberg).

The “monster fatberg”, a press release informs me, is “London’s newest celebrity, and has fascinated and disgusted people all over the world”. Found in the sewers beneath Whitechapel, the entire ‘berg was over 250m long (6m longer than Tower Bridge!) and weighed in at 130 tonnes.

The Museum won’t house the entire fatberg, alas. Most of it, the press release tells me, has been converted into biodiesel, “turning a nauseating waste problem into a cleaner-burning, greenhouse gas reducing fuel which will benefit the environment”. One relatively small chunk, though, has been donated to the Museum by Thames Water to promote its “Bin it – don’t block it” campaign, which encourages Londoners to, well, you can work that part out for yourself.


So what, I hear you wondering, is a fatberg, exactly? Where do baby fatbergs come from?

Well, as the name suggests they’re the result of cooking fat, poured down sinks to congeal in sewers. Assorted wipes and napkins are also involved, playing roughly the same role that fibre does in your gut. I wouldn’t think about it too much if I were you.

In 2014, back in the early days of CityMetric when fatbergs were all the rage, we learned that there are even fatberg groupies, including a couple who had visited one in situ in the sewers as an anniversary trip. Righto.

We wouldn’t recommend that, to be honest, but if you fancy seeing a chunk of one from within the safety of the Museum of London, it’ll be on display from 2018. Knock yourselves out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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