This is the main finding of a UITP position paper entitled Autonomous vehicles: a potential game changer for urban mobility. The paper says that to avoid the risk of car travel becoming even more attractive and worsening road congestion, AVs should be put to use in shared fleets as “robo-taxis,” mini-buses or in car-sharing fleets, which could dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road. These fleets would be used to reach people and places it was too difficult to reach before with conventional public transport, plug gaps in the network and feed into public transport trunk lines.

The UITP says 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.

“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 and fully autonomous cars are expected to become available early in the next decade.

“Ensuring the successful roll-out of AVs is also contingent on the use of fully driverless operation, without which AVs will not be able to form a new mode of transport and would be unable to enhance existing public transport,” says the UITP. “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.”

However, a major challenge for public authorities will be to find the resources to fund investment in AVs. 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.”