Self-driving cars cheaper and better than light rail: expert

Self-driving cars cheaper and better than light rail: expert

Technology for Canberra's light rail line could be superseded by self-driving cars before construction is completed and trams could be more expensive and less effective in dealing with transport demand, new research has shown.

A study by Canberra-based computer programmer and large data expert Kent Fitch has found the development of a fleet of autonomous vehicles for Canberra could help address growing transport problems and provide a universal, on-demand and door-to-door service.

A self-driving car developed and outfitted by Google

A self-driving car developed and outfitted by GoogleCredit:The New York Times

Mr Fitch, who led development of the National Library of Australia's landmark online archive Trove, simulated a self-driving car fleet in Canberra, using international planning and research from cities including Ann Arbour Michigan, New York and Lisbon.

His extensive research found, based on conservative forecasts, a fleet of 23,000 cars could service 750,000 daily trips in Canberra at an cost of $3.80 for each average
13km peak hour journey.


Mr Fitch said the system could generate an annual surplus of about $75 million after capital financing and operational costs. More than 98 per cent of on-demand trips would begin within one minute of a request.

A $3.80 cost per trip cost compares with $13.33 for a private car, based on NRMA's estimated cost of car use and half the cost of daily parking in the parliamentary triangle.

Alternatives including ACTION bus travel cost $10.35 while the full commercial cost for a single tram journey is $22, based on projections from the Capital Metro business case, Mr Fitch said.

Cities the size of Canberra or larger could expect a "transport revolution" within five years, leaving some infrastructure like the tram line out of date.

"Transport in general in Canberra is expensive, and its a problem, and we seem to be looking for solutions that don't actually fit the problem because they're the thing we can latch on to," he said.

"If there are no alternatives, what do you do? But I think now they are alternatives like autonomous cars, and there will be by 2020."

He said research by private companies including Google and Tesla, as well as planning by governments in Singapore and Britain, would see self-driving cars become a reality sooner than some people expected.

"They think these ideas can work, as do a whole stack of think tanks, all the auto manufacturers and larger companies like Uber. I think it's worth looking at it and start planning what we would need here."

Mr Fitch said the government's transport planning needed to consider those who couldn't drive, and who could not walk to a light rail stop because of limited mobility or other demands.

"The promise of technology that is going to be brought to us because of autonomous vehicles is people won't lose their independence and will have convenience from door-to-door service," he said.

Further analysis of data included in the Capital Metro project's environmental impact statement showed average combined morning and afternoon peak speed around the 12 kilometre route would decrease from 27.8 kilometres per hour without light rail to 23.1 kilometres with light rail.

Traffic on the route would see peak return travel time increasing from 52 minutes, 6 seconds without trams to 55 minutes, 23 seconds with trams.

"I am wondering if Canberra is just not brave enough to look at this option, do we think its not going to happen around the world? Or are we just waiting," Mr Fitch said.

"If this technology eventuates, which is very likely, then travelling up and down Northbourne Avenue at 25 kilometres an hour is not likely to be of great interest to anyone."

Australia's first on-road trial of driverless cars was launched last month in South Australia, on roads in a controlled environment quarantined from general traffic.

The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative trial will start in November and will include participation from Telstra, Bosch and Volvo. It comes after a July 2014 survey of 1533 people, including 505 Australians, found most held concerns about riding in a driverless car.

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.