Comment

COMMENT

Why the ACT needs to hedge its public transport bets

Had Shane Rattenbury attended the International Driverless Car Conference in Adelaide last November (not just the test drive the following day), he would have learnt much about the state of the technology to inform his views.

He would have heard how Adelaide's urban designers are planning for streetscapes without on-street parking, of repurposing garages as living spaces and car parks as parkland and "vibrant" community spaces. He would have learnt why auto makers are planning to commercialise driverless cars not as novelties for the wealthy, but as components of universal and cheap mobility services, starting in 2020.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is now leading the formation of an AI research company.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is now leading the formation of an AI research company. Photo: Bloomberg

He would have noted the UK trials, and learnt that Britain's planned "car city" of the 1960s, Milton Keynes, has recently abandoned plans for light rail, opting for advanced transport technology including a shared fleet of driverless cars. He would have heard Gerard Waldron, Managing Director at Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) explain the benefits of operating non-polluting electric vehicles as a shared fleet of driverless cars.

Experts in the field consistently emphasise that technology is no longer the issue on the critical path to adoption. Rather it is the regulatory and planning details, which they encourage governments to address urgently. Autonomous driving in all possible circumstances and locations is a hard problem but it is not the problem that must be solved immediately: most benefits accrue from satisfying the constrained requirements in specific urban settings.

Nissan have announced they will commercialise driverless cars in 2020. Ford CEO Mark Fields forecasts they'll be available within five years. The ever-optimistic CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, predicts his company's first fully autonomous car will be capable of driving across America and recharging without human intervention in 2018. Every major car maker is committed to the research and development required to remain competitive.

The support and investment backing driverless cars is broad-based, and founded on cold, hard economics and the self-interest of government, industry and consumers. The mobility revolution enabled by driverless cars will deliver annual benefits of $1.3 trillion to the US economy according to Morgan-Stanley. Reduced accidents make up 44 per cent of this amount, followed by productivity gains (33 per cent), and fuel and congestion savings (each 12 per cent). Australia's Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development estimate road crashes cost $27 billion every year.

Advertisement

As 90 per cent of road accidents are caused by driver error, driverless cars will greatly reduce this burden, associated deaths and suffering. Canberra's hospitalisations arising from road accidents are 23 per cent above the national average, so our share of just this benefit will be proportionately higher – around $500 million.

Simulations of a shared fleet of driverless cars in which travellers hire a seat in peak periods and the entire car off-peak demonstrate that in Canberra, a fleet of 23,000 electric vehicles can provide 750,000 journeys per day, with over 98 per cent of journeys starting within 1 minute of being requested. Each day, the extraction, refining, shipping and burning of over 650,000 litres of petrol and diesel is replaced by about 2.4GWHr of electricity.

In common with similar studies by Columbia University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the unsubsidised cost to the traveller is about one-third that of private car and public transport: 25 cents per km in peak, 20 cents off-peak, including the fleet operator's profit. Automated matching and scheduling achieves per-car occupancies of 2.0 and over to popular destinations, such as the Parliamentary Triangle in the AM peak, compared to 1.1 with today's private cars.

Hence, even with all ACTION passengers in shared cars, traffic volumes and congestion are greatly reduced from current levels by re-using the existing road infrastructure efficiently.

For Canberra's ageing population, relinquishing a driver's licence means reducing mobility, independence and quality of life. There are tens of thousands of Canberrans for whom restricted mobility leads to social and economic disadvantage. A shared fleet of driverless cars offers 24/7, on-demand, door-to-door mobility for all, regardless of age, income and physical capability.

If the community and government fail to take the lead in defining the operational parameters of such a service, big business will. Whilst we bicker over a single expensive tram line and the benefits of forcing people to walk further to stops and wait for connecting buses, others are preparing a transport revolution.

The ACT Government has many more worthy and pressing calls on its revenue than building new roads and duplicating transport infrastructure: our health and hospital system, public housing, schools all need increased funding.

To bet against electric driverless cars and a new model of universal and egalitarian mobility which reduces disadvantage, congestion, fossil fuel dependence and demand for new roads is to bet against every major auto maker, against Google, Apple and Uber, against the world's most renowned engineering schools, against the sober analyses of Morgan-Stanley, KPMG, Deloitte, Accenture, McKinsey, ARRB, the International Transport Forum, and against the governments of Singapore, Japan, Britain, and the US, which alone plans to invest $4 billion to hasten the productivity and social benefits.

No one really wants a light-rail line, or a bus network, or even a car, autonomous or otherwise. What they do want is a way to travel safely, cheaply, reliably and quickly from door to door, whenever the need arises. The future of Canberra's urban infrastructure is best directed by the informed choices of the community, not short-term profiteering from encouraging urban sprawl on the fringes whilst simultaneously manufacturing a transport crisis by concentrating services and employment at the centre.

The technology transforming what a car "is" concomitantly renders the "cars are evil" ideology untenable. Autonomous electric vehicles promise to do for the transport of people and goods what the internet did for ideas and information. Embrace, frame and mould this opportunity, but don't pretend it isn't happening.

Kent Fitch is a software developer and author of a web-based model of Canberra's transport. He does not stand to gain financially from the advocacy contained in this article.