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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.