AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES HAVE WE REACHED THE END OF THE ROAD?
This glimpse of the future was crafted by: Mikel AlonsoAs predictors of what the future will look ...
This glimpse of the future was crafted by: Mikel Alonso
As predictors of what the future will look like, movies have proven eerily accurate: its 1966 and Batman uses a remote control to summon The Batmobile. Forward to 2002s Minority Report and autonomous self-driving vehicles weave almost magically on magnetic cushions through a futuristic Washington DC. We set our sights on a future that involves autonomous vehicles long ago!
Fiction has become fact. Were standing on the brink of a driving revolution with the race on for which car manufacturer will be the first to roll out a line of completely self-driven vehicles.
At the same time, as urban areas experience a rapid influx of people and population growth, the need for sustainable mass public transport solutions has become ever more urgent.
While car manufacturers drive the autonomous vehicles (AV) revolution, governments are currently ploughing billions into mass transit solutions. Which begs the question: Should this investment be redirected to accelerate the manufacture of AVs, given that mass transit solutions could be made somewhat redundant once AVs hit the road?
Is this a race with only one winner, or is there a space for two winners? Will the billions that are being poured in to mass transit become a gross over expenditure when the AV becomes common place?
More importantly, can AVs really reinvent transportation systems?
Driverless vehicles are being touted for their potential to resolve traffic congestion and improve road safety. The current narrative would suggest that car ownership will be a thing of the past as shared AVs take centre stage and older modes of public transport are relegated to the books.
The story goes that these vehicles will be cheaper, more convenient and will dispense with the need for car parks because theyll be circulating constantly. Traffic jams will be a distant memory too as all the AVs platoon on the freeways.
There is also the economic benefit related to increased productivity. Need to catch up on emails? With your eyes off the road, you can confidently turn your attention to work. This is hands-free at its best iteration.
It certainly sounds like a simple indefectible, even solution to a convoluted problem.
But on closer inspection, how utopian is this future? And is it as realistic as the movies? And what about those billions of dollars being spent right now on mass transit? Is it a wasted investment? Whats the real story here?
The existing infrastructure in many urban areas simply cannot support more vehicles on the roads concurrently, automobile sales are forecast to climb rapidly along with a growing middle class who can afford the luxury. When the AV hits the market, whos to say it wont exacerbate the existing traffic burden instead of relieving it, putting even more vehicles on the road?
There is also the culture and mindset shift that will be required to get people to adopt AVs. Take the electric car for instance. Theres been talk of it for some time now yet in most of the developed world, the majority of people are still opting for petrol-driven cars.
Without wanting to completely quash the benefits of AVs, heres why its counterintuitive to hail the advent of the AV as the end of traffic congestion (at least in the short to medium term).
Show me the money
This is a big one: the cost factor. For now the technology would be out of reach of most people. Various forms of car sharing are predicted to counter this but how willing will we be to adapt and give up that personal space and autonomy?
Security poses a risk
Countries would need to put some serious governance measures in place to handle AVs. As The Guardian has pointed out, if they ever hit the roads, self-driving cars will prove an irresistible target for hackers.
More AVs does not equal less traffic
The difference in congestion between total chaos and a perfectly ordered driving system the kind proposed in a future with autonomous vehicles is only about 33%, write co-authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths in Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions.
Theres no easy fix. Christian and Griffith sum up it up succinctly: Congestion will always be a problem solvable more by planners and by overall demand than by the decisions of individual drivers, human or computer, selfish or cooperative.
Forging the way
Heres the rub though: theres no quick-fix solution. Focusing on problem-solving, the current situation is akin to slapping a Band-Aid over a festering wound.
AVs alone arent likely to be the elusive panacea to our transport woes. Not in the foreseeable future at least. These require multi-faceted, long-term solutions to a complex problem.
Most cities have transport systems that rely on outdated economic models, un-integrated assets and obsolete technology. Thats key because thats exactly where city planners need to focus their energies on conceptualising innovative research, carefully considering benefit-cost assessments and adopting holistic transport solutions.
This includes, for example, consideration of what commuters experience when leaving their place of residence and travel into a CBD, to the integration of transport modes to assure optimal journeys and the impact that dynamic population growth will have on infrastructure development to keep up.
Its time for cities to be proactive
The time for stopgap, Band-Aid measures is over. In the long term, the cities that forge ahead will be those that place urban planning at the fore of the city agenda.
Cities need to invest in effective, efficient and safe public transport but this requires political will. For change to be effected, partnerships need to be forged between governments, the private sector and the community. Crucially, all efforts must be underpinned by broad collaboration between the three to define the problem and then translate meaningful policies into long-term transport solutions that will transform the lives of the populace.
These integrated transport solutions will include optimal blends of pedestrian zones, privately-owned vehicles, shared transport services, mass public transit systems and mobility services like Uber and Lyft. We cant science our way out of this one by summoning an AV.
And, of course, the regulatory environment must be conducive for the whole transport ecosystem to operate seamlessly.
The mobility evolution is here. Tom Cruise and his Minority Report vision of transport is still many decades away. Its the cities that respond to the need, adapt and remain at the forefront of the evolution that will lead their citizens into this brave new world and get them moving around the city in a multi-modal mix of technological solutions that combine autonomous and manual, public and private, shared and individual and mass versus dedicated.
Navigating the blend of these modalities is where the real intellect will come in to play. We wont simply be able to join the creed: All hail the AV! because, once we get to that space, the arguments for the next leap to beam me up, Scotty will be on the table for our innovators.
(Aurecon has launched a new futuristic blog! Called Just Imagine, it provides a glimpse into the future for curious readers, exploring ideas that are probable, possible and for the imagination. This post originally appeared on Aurecons Just Imagine blog. Get access to the latest blog posts as soon as they are published by subscribing to the blog.)
All Right Reserved