Autonomous vehicles can provide affordable, safe and sustainable transportation for all, including children, the elderly and the disabled. This is why the UITP (International Association of Public Transport) carried out a study on this subject in January 2017. We will therefore try to understand how autonomous vehicles can revolutionise our urban transport system and what we need to do to ensure that this does not turn into a fiasco.
A NEW CHANCE FOR THE PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM
The arrival of autonomous vehicles in cities can help to develop cities that are more accessible to the entire population, more environmentally friendly with less traffic jams and simply more pleasant. But they can also do just the opposite: increase traffic congestion with even more cars on the roads and more pollution in the air. We will see why.
It is therefore notably up to the public authorities to do what is necessary to integrate them in the right way into the transport network in order to improve living conditions in cities.
TO 80% FEWER CARS IN THE CITIES?
Several studies from recognized research centres, including MIT, agree that it would be possible to have up to 80% fewer cars in cities while taking everyone to their destinations. How is this possible?
In reality, autonomous vehicles would not be the main reason for this, they would only be a tool. In fact, the main solution to relieve our cities of its thousands of vehicles remains public transport, which optimizes space by transporting many people very efficiently.
However, autonomous vehicles still have a role to play. As shown in the graphic above, they could be used to complement the public transport network by transporting passengers to metro stations or by being available for hire such as bicycles, thus avoiding the need for everyone to have a personal vehicle. There is also a need to promote cycling and walking.
However, in order for this to work, cities and authorities must accept the deployment of autonomous vehicles, which seems to be a very significant obstacle. Otherwise, these, which are already technologically ready, will not be able to help with the fundamental change in urban transport.
Autonomous shuttles already exist in cities such as Sion and Lyon to carry passengers, but for the moment this is more of a test to see if the shuttles can blend in with existing transport and pedestrians.
It will then be interesting to see how the deployment of autonomous vehicles continues.
HOW CAN AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES IMPROVE TRANSPORTATION IN THE CITY?
First of all, the fact that we can/should introduce a new mode of transport in cities is an opportunity to rethink our entire transport network and thus imagine a new one that meets as many criteria as possible, including the fight against global warming.
Autonomous cars can directly be a possibility for the preservation of the environment. In fact, the vast majority of autonomous vehicles are electric, which avoids local pollution. This can also limit the emission of greenhouse gases depending on the way the vehicle is built and the electricity production used to drive it (an electric vehicle is not completely clean, especially if the electricity comes from coal mines, for example). But the main way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from autonomous vehicles would be to do as the previous graphic said: use them to set up a system of shared taxis, thus greatly limiting the number of vehicles on the road. In addition to directly reducing pollution, this would be a way to limit the urban space dedicated to cars (50% in Paris) between car parks and roads. It would then be possible to use this space for other things: housing, greenery, agriculture…
Stand-alone vehicles would also allow for more inclusive transportation solutions. Indeed, everyone would have access to the same transportation, including children, the elderly and the disabled, because there would no longer be a need for permits in the case of fully autonomous vehicles.
THREATS AND POSSIBLE BACKLASHES
First of all, for this new public transport network to be possible, heavy investment from the public sector is needed to be able to modify the infrastructure, which can be an obstacle. Secondly, the public authorities, after investing, would lose power over urban transport. Autonomous taxis, for example, would be in the hands of private firms. We would therefore first have to overcome these two obstacles.
However, the main focus must be on the possibility that everything could go wrong with the deployment of autonomous vehicles. Indeed, if in an ideal case, this reduces the number of vehicles on the road by 80%, and therefore traffic congestion and pollution, there is also an alternative where it reinforces these problems. To avoid this, a change of mentality is needed. Indeed, people would have to agree to share all their journeys in self-propelled taxis, which is a big change. Otherwise there is a risk that autonomous cars will make empty journeys, or journeys with only one passenger working in the vehicle, thus preferring this mode of transport to shared public transport. This would therefore greatly increase traffic. Finally, autonomous vehicles could compete with cycling or walking, which is not a good thing at all. Indeed, people who can move around without any effort would be attracted, whereas cycling (electric or not) and walking are the two most environmentally friendly modes of travel.
A DREAM OR A REAL SOLUTION
I think it is here for everyone to have their own opinion on the feasibility of this new transport network. However, we must be aware that efforts will be needed at all levels, from individual citizens to government and local authorities, to come as close as possible to the ideal described in this UITP study. Otherwise, autonomous vehicles will be just one more technology in our lives, which like many others is not beneficial to the survival of the planet.