Here's why driverless cars may not change the world after all

Same old. Image: Getty.

Driverless cars are an engineer’s dream: at last, a technology that promises to remove the human factor from the traffic system.

It is humans, after all, whose errors contribute to 75 per cent of road crashes, who introduce undesirable randomness into the mathematical simplicity of traffic flows, and who have been characterised (somewhat tongue in cheek) as “monkey drivers” with slow reaction times and short attention spans.

We are “monkey drivers”.

If only we could eliminate the human factor, we would have cities teeming with safe, efficient cars whizzing us to our destinations. Right?

Wrong. For better or worse, as long as there are humans in the transport system we cannot ignore the human factor. To do so grossly overestimates the promised benefits of driverless cars and underestimates the negative impacts they will have on our traffic networks and society.

Think like a human

First, there are the immediate technological hurdles. At high speeds this is actually relatively straightforward as interactions on freeways are already effectively “vehicle-to-vehicle”. We are travelling too fast on a freeway to communicate at a human level, so we rely on infrastructure and technology to do much of the work for us, from using indicators to following dynamic signage. Removing human error is plausible and beneficial.

But all of that changes at low speeds, where drivers have to interact at a human level, such as when making eye contact with another driver, giving the nod to a pedestrian, or waving to a cyclist to let them go ahead.

How will an automated vehicle know if a pedestrian standing near the zebra crossing is waiting to cross or chatting on the phone? How will it process regional differences in body language, such as Google Car’s confusion over a “track-standing” cyclist?

Google is already training its cars to recognise a cyclist’s hand signals, but we still have a long way to go. Similarly, without human gestures, how will the rest of us learn how to anticipate the actions of driverless cars? Recent research suggests that we don’t yet know.

Making humans comply

One of the issues with the utopian vision promised by driverless cars – cities where parking is converted into parks, or intersections where traffic lights aren’t even needed – is that it only works if 100 per cent of the vehicle fleet is automated and individual ownership makes way for a fleet of shared pay-as-you-go taxis.

But how many people will actually opt in to this vision of the future? If you don’t trust the technology, if you get motion sickness, if you enjoy driving classic cars (or motorbikes), or if you just don’t like the idea of being driven by a car that always follows the speed limit and never jumps the queue, then a driverless car may not be for you.

Not everyone will want a world of only driverless cars. Image: Patrick/Flickr/creative commons.

It is no wonder that forecasts of the market penetration of driverless cars vary so enormously. For example, estimates from the Netherlands range from 7 per cent to 61 per cent of the vehicle fleet by 2050.

Even if we do reach 100 per cent car automation, we still cannot ignore humans. Smart automated intersections promise to remove the need for traffic lights and allow twice as much traffic to use the roads. But how will non-automated cyclists approach these intersections? How will pedestrians cross them?

We may reach a stage where the road safety benefits of driverless cars are so blatantly evident that non-automated cars are made illegal, and we wonder why humans were ever trusted to drive. But until that day we will be living in a messy world of haves and have-nots with all the infrastructure required for both systems to run in parallel.

What happens when cyclists mix with driverless cars? Image: Richard Masoner/Flickr/creative commons.

No more car ownership

Then there’s the issue with sharing a driverless car fleet, with some claiming driverless cars will mean we move beyond individual ownership.

Car-sharing systems have existed for decades in the United States, yet fewer than 1 per cent of Americans are members. Even optimistic estimates top out at 10 per cent of the market.

Car-sharing has enormous potential in compact cities such as San Francisco or inner Sydney, where individual car ownership is expensive or impractical and many trips can be completed by public transit, cycling or walking. But if you live in the suburbs or a rural area, if you have one or more child seats, if you store and carry goods in your car, if you want to have a say in the style of car you ride in, then it is unlikely that car-sharing will be economical or desirable for you.

Gaming the system

If driverless cars are instead owned by individuals, that opens the door to gaming the system in a way that is likely to erode the promised congestion-busting benefits. 

Humans have an uncanny ability to make any system work for their individual benefit. When that happens, the congestion benefits promised by driverless cars are likely to be quickly undermined by human nature. The small congestion benefits promised through freeway platooning and efficient intersections are likely to be quickly undermined by increased use of driverless cars.

It’s also true that the more attractive you make travelling in driverless cars, the more people will do it. If you can catch up on emails during your hour-long drive, why bother to take the train? But some of the tactics that might remove the hassle from driverless travel could also worsen traffic.

Allowing driverless cars to run without passengers opens up an enormous potential for exploitation. Why pay for parking downtown when you can send your car back home to park (doubling the trips in peak hour in the process)? Why bother to find a parking space at all if your car can circle the block by itself while you order a latte?

Changing society, one car at a time

The biggest changes to society expand far beyond individual drivers. The largest benefit, by far, is reducing the road toll, which costs Australian society $27bn per year. Thousands of deaths and serious injuries might be prevented through automation.

Yet this is not the only potential impact. Allowing the disabled, blind and unlicensed access to a driverless car will provide them with unprecedented freedom and mobility, but it will also increase cars on the road by 2-10 per cent, once again eroding congestion benefits.

Driverless cars will also threaten the jobs of people who drive trucks, buses, taxis and Uber cars. In total, this is about 2.6 per cent of the working population, according to the 2011 Australian Census. Fewer crashes means fewer jobs in car repair and insurance, while compliant cars mean fewer parking tickets and speeding fines, reducing government revenue.

So despite all the hype, promise and predictions, no one really quite knows what the future of driverless cars will look like. But as long as humans are leaving their homes, we cannot ignore the human factor.The Conversation

Alexa Delbosc is a lecturer in transport at Monash University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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