Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Autonomous road vehicles are coming - start preparing now

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THERE is little doubt that the introduction of autonomous vehicles (AV) will have a profound effect on land transport when driverless cars, buses and trucks become commercially available, but the big question is how will their introduction affect not only road transport but also rail, and what the implications will be for public transport operators and railways.

Last month the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) published a position paper entitled Autonomous vehicles: a potential game changer for urban mobility. The paper says that to avoid the risk of car travel becoming more attractive and worsening road congestion, AVs should be used in shared fleets as “robo-taxis,” mini-buses and in car-sharing pools, which could dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road. These fleets would be used to reach people and places beyond the limits of conventional public transport, plug gaps in the network and feed into public transport trunk lines.

 

The UITP wants urban transport authorities to build their own AV fleets for shared use and integration with existing bus and rail services to avoid what it describes as “a dystopian future of even more private car traffic on the road.”

The UITP says that by introducing shared AV fleets, integrated with traditional public transport, it would be possible to cut noise and pollution, improve traffic efficiency and reduce the need for parking thereby liberating “vast amounts of urban space” for other purposes. It says studies in New York, Lisbon and Stuttgart show that such a strategy would make it possible to take every citizen to their destination with at least 80% fewer cars, which would have a major impact on air quality, congestion and urban land use. However, this is certainly not the vision of car manufacturers which would not want to see a huge reduction in sales as the prize for investing in AV technology. But if AVs are available on demand and at reasonable cost, city dwellers may well decide that there is little point in owning a car.

“When 1.2 million people around the world die each year in car-related deaths, 90% of which are due to human error, the road safety benefits are also significant,” says Mr Alain Flausch, the UITP’s secretary general. Flaush will be discussing the implications of the introduction of AVs during a session on this subject at IRJ’s International Railway Summit in Paris on February 15-17.

The development of AVs is moving rapidly with several trials already underway with AV cars, buses and lorries, and fully autonomous cars are expected to become commercially available early in the next decade.

“Public authorities must take an active role in the roll-out of AVs to ensure their shared use with measures to encourage shared mobility and limit single car occupancy and provide ‘Mobility as a Service’ platforms, as whoever controls the platform controls travel behaviour,” says the UITP.

Shared-use AVs should be more successful at encouraging car sharing which the UITP says currently only accounts for 0.5% of mobility. But will it be possible to ramp this up to the 50-60% mark which the UITP is talking about?

Another major challenge for public authorities will be to find the resources to fund investment in AVs and to convince their political masters that this is good use of public funds. Failure to do so could result in the development of large privately-owned fleets competing with existing public transport services, plus large numbers of privately-owned AVs roaming the streets until their owners need them again.

The UITP wants trials to begin on public roads to see how best to integrate AVs into the transport network and says preparations should be made to assess their impact on employment as some driving jobs could disappear while other jobs needing specific skills could arise.

“AVs are a potential game-changer for urban mobility, and cities and countries must act now to shape their roll-out,” Flausch says. “AVs offer the chance for a fundamental change - as a key part of tomorrow’s integrated transport systems with public transport as a backbone - but if we do not act now vehicle automation might even further increase the volume and use of private cars with all of the associated negative externalities.”

The effects of the introduction of AVs on inter-city journeys is likely to be less profound because of the speed and comfort advantages of rail. However, it will force rail operators to up their game to remain competitive. Rail freight, particularly over shorter distances, will face a greater challenge as AV lorries will be much cheaper to operate than manned trucks which will put even greater pressure on freight rates. An obvious solution is for rail freight operators to invest in their own fleets of AV lorries to provide door-to-door services. Railways will also need to step up the development of fully automated main line networks to reduce costs and remain competitive.

Predicting the future is fraught with difficulty and challenges, but the speed at which AV is being developed means the rail industry cannot afford to adopt a wait and see attitude. If it wants to survive let alone prosper, it needs to take action now. And even if the introduction of AVs does not happen as fast as some predict, there are still huge benefits from reducing operating costs and improving efficiency and service quality.

David Briginshaw

David Briginshaw joined IRJ in 1982 as associate editor, and was appointed editor-in-chief in 2001. He has travelled the world extensively interviewing many of the CEOs and senior managers of the world's railways and transit systems which has given him an in-depth knowledge of the global railway industry.

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