There was a good post and fascinating comments thread on Human Transit recently about driverless cars and what impact they may have on transport planning in the future. Jarrett Walker blogged that he can’t really see driverless cars being as revolutionary as some people think, for a few reasons:
- Many of the benefits from driverless cars (such as increased capacity of the road system) only arise when there has been a complete changeover from current ‘driven’ cars and it’s difficult to see a pathway towards that eventual outcome.
- Driverless cars will still (although potentially to a lesser degree) suffer from the ‘space extensive’ nature of individualised transport options so may not be that useful for very high demand routes.
- If driverless technology becomes feasible then why wouldn’t there be a huge shift to driverless buses as well, which could dramatically lower the cost of public transport provision.
Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn’t buses become driverless at the same time? In such a future, wouldn’t any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high? Wouldn’t there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit? As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I’m not sure, at each moment, whether we’re talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of “Personal” rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space.
As I noted earlier, the comment thread is interesting because a few of his questions are answered in quite a lot of useful detail. For example, a progression path from the current system to a future transport system based around driverless cars:
1. A car maker introduces a driverless model that essentially works as a souped up cruise drive. A driver is still legally required, but the car will drive itself when you toggle it into cruise mode. This model will be expensive, but it will sell well to rich people who don’t like driving. Liability will naturally belong to the person who is in the drivers seat.
2. As these cars become more and more popular and proven to be safe, old/disabled people will lobby for regulations that the person being in the drivers seat don’t have to have a drivers license.
3. As these are getting safer and safer, regulations for someone being in the drivers seat will fade. More upper middle class people will buy them to driver their kids, pick themselves up from the airport, and so on and so forth.
4. At some point, taxi companies/uber start to buy these cars because they are cheaper then paying salaries.
5. As the number of automated cars grow, cities realize that they need smaller lanes and move more cars per lane. A few really big freeways will start seeing automation only lanes.
6. The prospect of skipping congestions means that they will sell better, allowing for more automation lanes to be built.
7. Meanwhile, competition slowly forces down taxi/uber prices, making car ownership less desirable for lower classes, reducing manual cars on the road.
8. Car makers only make automated cars because poorer people are buying less and less cars, and well off people all demand cars that at least CAN drive themselves.
9. And we are in the future utopia already.
I’m not completely up to date on the whole driverless cars thing. Some obvious issues that come to light are things like legalities when something goes wrong and how, if not impossible to work around, it’s certainly likely to slow down implementation. This is highlighted by another commenter:
…every time a driverless car hits a child who darts in to a street after a soccer ball or plows in to pedestrians in a crosswalk will set the movement back. When people-driven cars do this, we can usually find fault (“they didn’t see the kid”, “they were distracted by their phone”) but when a computer does it, there will be no easy answers and people will call for the cars to be off the road.
I guess one big advantage of driverless cars is that if they really do stop perfectly to ensure they don’t run over pedestrians, it pretty much turns every street into a defacto shared space because the vehicles will always automatically stop for you when you’re crossing the road.