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.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.