Driverless cars are presented by some as a utopian solution that will solve our transport problems. I’m not convinced that the changes driverless cars will bring about will happen as fast or be as vast as those most enthusiastic about the tech. This is not to say driverless cars won’t happen or won’t have an impact, in fact I think some areas such as taxis will see considerable change.
Some of the changes might be great either. For example one prospect is that driverless cars will be zipping about in all directions meaning roads are busier off peak than they are now when cars are all parked up.
Twitter user Queen Anne Greenways from Seattle created a list of over 50 different doomsday scenarios that could occur if driverless cars eventuate. While they’re a bit of fun some also seem scarcely accurate.
- To save money on parking, people let their cars circle the block downtown all day.
- Unexpected re-boots kill thousands.
- Rich people buy dozens of cars and send them to run errands all day.
- Instead of dispersed crashes like we have now, systemic software glitches cause thousands at once.
- Terrorists hack every Prius, turning them into killing machines.
- Computers gain self-awareness. Self-driving cars make perfect hosts.
- Unfettered by safety concerns, cars become massive rolling entertainment capsules.
- Governments spend billions on research and infrastructure but the benefits never materialize.
- Auto traffic becomes more like *internet* traffic: mostly unnecessary and 40% porn-related.
- Self-driving doesn’t mean self-fueling. Stalled, driverless vehicles litter the roadways.
- Self-driving doesn’t mean self-repairing. Poorly maintained equipment still kills thousands.
- Everything works great until a sensor wire comes loose.
- Braking distance is the same whether the car is self-driving or not. Peds learn the hard way.
- Peds crossing everywhere causes permanent gridlock, which is “fixed” by restrictive ped laws.
- Stopping all traffic is as simple as placing a lifelike doll at a few intersections.
- Now that you can sleep in your car, a three-hour SOV commute becomes feasible.
- Long, private, pleasant SOV commutes make sprawl more attractive.
- Traffic deaths drop to 0. Yay! So, no reason to address pollution, noise or ugly streetscapes, ever.
- Efficiencies gained by “bunching” induce demand that completely offsets all efficiencies.
- Self-driving delivery requires menacing robotic solution to the “curb-to-door problem.”
- Human-driven cars quickly outwit the automated ones, completely neutralizing their benefits.
- Only the worst drivers keep their human-driven car.
- Enthusiasm for self-driving cars fuels outcry for more dedicated car space.
- They divert investment away from things we already know work. Like transit.
- Instead of mailing parcels across town, everyone just sends cars there and back.
- Carmakers develop new horns to make loud, complex announcements: “I’m here to pick you up, Janice!”
- They become the ideal platform for rolling billboards, which become cheaper and proliferate.
- Driverless but not carbon-free. The mechanism causing climate change has simply been automated.
- Two words: Road drones.
- Instead of taking shape of regular car seats, American butts take shape of *self-driving* car seats.
- Chevy unironically unveils model equipped with stationary bike so you can exercise while you commute.
- An hour on hold with tech support figuring out how to park in a field at the fairgrounds.
- Interaction with emergency vehicles proves problematic. Police given universal kill switch.
- Volkswagen decides to make one.
- To save money on parking, cars commute twice for each person, once at 8:00am and once at 5:00pm.
- Car manufacturers work hard to write algorithms that outwit competing algorithms.
- US government demands “back door” into all car sensor data. Opens new data mining possibilities.
- America’s “love affair” with the car is rekindled for yet another century.
- Two words: Apple Maps.
- Almost nobody buys one, so I just wasted 40 tweets.
- people stop buying houses and buy self driving RVs which endlessly circle city centre. (this one was by user @CarpenterBernie)
- Occupant-activated “emergency mode” lets cars drive in protected bike lanes, on sidewalks.
- All taxi, bus, delivery and long-haul truck drivers lose their jobs. Executives all get bonuses.
- Private cars are driverless yet, for some reason, buses and metro rail still need operators.
- Cities stop building bike infrastructure in anticipation of impending driverless utopia.
- Vehicular cyclists finally win (and they gloat about it to the rest of us).
- Cyclists banned from the road to prevent “system inefficiencies”.
- Without threat of death, cars must now honk continuously to get bikes and peds out of the way.
- Google and carmakers lobby Congress to severely limit their liability.
- Government adopts “standard algorithm.” Tea Party-type groups protest for more speed, less safety.
- Consumers prefer cars with algorithms that prioritize occupant safety, not bike and ped safety.
- The Self-Driving Indianapolis 500.
- New kind of political protest: the “vehicular DoS” attack. Sending 1,000 cars to the exact same spot. (as opposed to the analog version we currently have).
- Google writes the perfect algorithm but fails to consider the ways people will use it in the wild.
- Google achieves six sigma reliability: 1.5 trillion US trips * 0.00034% rate = 510 million “defects.”These ones I added
- To help pay for your trip you’ll be forced to watch in car advertising for the length of your journey.
- Prior to each trip you’ll have to watch to an airplane style safety video even if you’ve used that car before.
- You’ll have to click a button accepting a 1,000+ page EULA before the car will move.
- The term blue screen of death takes on a whole new meaning.
I could actually see quite a few of these becoming reality, what do you think?
Automated, autonomous, driverless or self-driving – whatever you want to call them cars that can drive without the interaction of a human are increasingly talked about as the next big thing in transport and the Ministry has recently highlighted what’s happening in New Zealand around them.
They say that while the talk going around is about fully autonomous vehicles, there are actually different levels of it and increasing levels of technology are already in some cars. A good description of the different technology levels comes from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which breaks things down to five levels as shown below. It’s noted that other jurisdictions have similar classifications.
As for actually implementing driverless cars they note that they will pose a number of challenges although one advantage is they likely mean there is no need to change existing roads. Instead the challenges are more likely to be policy/requirement related
The Ministry of Transport has a work programme to clarify the current legal situation that applies to the deployment of autonomous vehicles in New Zealand. Section 4.14 (page 25) of the government’s Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Technology Action Plan [PDF, 431 KB]specifically relates to autonomous vehicles. This includes the following action:
Government actions to promote New Zealand internationally as a test-bed for new technologies
The Ministry of Transport, in conjunction with the NZ Transport Agency, will review transport legislation to clarify the legality of testing driverless cars in New Zealand. This will specifically consider the issues of liability associated with testing, but will not consider liability for general use.
The work programme has a range of possible outcomes – one being a law to set requirements for driverless vehicles. However, there are no immediate plans to do this. The relevant excerpt from Section 4.14 of the ITS Action Plan reads:
Internationally there is a great deal of thought being given to what laws will be necessary for the general operation of driverless vehicles. Their widespread operation will pose complex legal challenges, especially to determine liability in the event of any accident. It is not proposed that the New Zealand government will explicitly look at these legal issues at this time. Rather, the government will continue to monitor international developments and draw on this knowledge once international thinking has developed further and it is clearer if or when these vehicles will be commercially available.
One interesting thing I’ve been noticing with the driverless car debate is that many countries, states and cities all seem to be falling over themselves to be the test-bed for these new technologies – presumably in the hope that some of the big players will turn up invest money. The MoT say they have started to look at the legal issues associated with testing these vehicles. However they also say there are “no obvious legal barriers” towards testing driverless cars as “NZ Law has no explicit requirement in our laws for a driver to present”. Despite this the MoT say there have been no formal requests to test driverless cars on our roads.
While the MoT seem to be mostly thinking about how the legal issues of testing driverless cars, perhaps they should also start to have a think about other associated issues too. Some of these are highlighted quite well in a few pieces I’ve read recently.
The Ethical issues
There’s a greater issue that just liability should an incident occur but a debate that needs be decided about how driverless cars deal with accidents in the first place. This article highlights the issue well
He soon came to see both its significance and its painful complexity. For example, when an accident is unavoidable, should a driverless car be programmed to aim for the smallest object to protect its occupant? What if that object turns out to be a baby stroller? If a car must choose between hitting a group of pedestrians and risking the life of its occupant, what is the moral choice? Does it owe its occupant more than it owes others?
When human drivers face impossible dilemmas, choices are made in the heat of the moment and can be forgiven. But if a machine can be programmed to make the choice, what should it be?
Coming up with an answer to these issues could have wide ranging implications for society – but then again we’ve changed society in the past in the way we allowed vehicles to dominate our cities. The implication of driverless cars on cities is the next point
Are we solving the wrong problem?
A great piece from Peter Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic highlights that driverless cars could be fantastic and fix many of the issues we associate with our auto-dominated society – which he says came about because we focused on how best to move cars and not what is best for people or the city. Unfortunately he says that if we don’t address the issue of what we want our cities to be then driverless cars could actually make our auto-dependency worse.
In autonomous vehicles and other intelligent transportation systems, we may have a solution so powerful that we fail to pause and ask what problem such systems are best suited to solving. We may fail to ask whether the problem formulation we inherited is the right one.
If engineers continue to seek to accommodate all of motorists demands, and f they accommodate such demands much more efficiently, each car may make much more efficient use of road and parking capacity, but total demands may rise so much that even more space will be needed for road surface and for parking. In the fully autonomous vehicle, as the driver need pay little or no attention to driving, driving time may become work or play time in effect negating the time cost of travel. Autonomous cars might also safely travel much faster. Such changes might turn the 50-mile commute of today into the 100-mile commute of tomorrow. Today, people trying to travel by other modes such as walking or bicycling must contend with urban sprawl governed drivers perceptions of distance. How will they reckon with distances that have doubled again? Presumably many of them too will resort to driving. However reluctantly they turn to it, their decision will be taken as a vote for driving. Finally, as the skill demands of driving fall well have more drivers. Such trends would mean that we would continue to rebuild the world for drivers, instead of asking what world we want to live in and conforming driving to it.
If we do get the right implementation of driverless cars then the impact they could have is absolutely transformative.
The transformative potential?
This piece from Vox looks at some of the massive potential driverless cars offer. He openly says he’s being a bit utopian in his thinking on some of the benefits that could be delivered. These include that we can “right-size” both vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them such as roads and parking. Doing that could mean more space made available for people. They also could fix the suburbs, freeing up space and allowing more development to occur all while improving air quality (assuming they’re electric).
The piece also notes that this utopia is a long way off. There are a lot of vested interests in the transport system and many of those will be reluctant to change forcing path dependence along a route we don’t necessarily want. The article also highlights that there are likely to be some substantial privacy implications.
But “smart” means information, and a city filled with sensors and trackers will accumulate a lot of information about every citizen within it. Who owns that information? Who can access it? How much will basic services like transportation hinge on the surrender of personal data? How will all that data be protected from the copious cybersecurity threats that face smart cities?
As people continue to look closer at driverless vehicles they will also continue to see there are a lot of issues that needs to be addressed. As such it could be some time before we really start seeing any serious driverless car proposals.
An interesting article on Citylab highlights something I’ve been saying for a while when it comes to the hype around driverless cars – what about the pedestrians. It’s based of the video (below) from MIT’s Senseable City Lab showing how an urban intersection might work in a world of driverless cars.
Imagine a city without traffic lights, where lanes of cars merge harmoniously from one to the next, allowing traffic to flow smoothly across intersections. This futuristic vision is becoming reality. The development of autonomous driving promises to revolutionise the landscape of urban mobility.
As Citylab note:
The first thing to notice is how truly terrifying it would be—at least initially—to ride in a driverless car going that fast through an intersection. Seriously: pause the video at 44 seconds and see how narrowly the car turning left avoids being slammed by another going straight. When you ride in a self-driving car, you quickly learn to trust it; in fact, Google has said its early test riders trusted the car too much on highways. But having faith in a computerized intersection overlord to orchestrate so much city traffic at such great speeds will require a steep period of public adjustment.
The second thing to note is far more important: Where are all the pedestrians and bike riders? (Hat tip to Columbia University planning professor David King for bringing this to our attention.) Keep in mind this wasn’t some remote crossing being modeled; it was the intersection of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues in Boston.
There’s an obvious reason why an “intelligent intersection” would want to eliminate people crossing on foot or by bike: they’d slow things down. But it would be a huge mistake for cities to undo all the progress being made on human-scale street design just to accommodate a perfect algorithm of car movement. If the result is that driverless cars need to move through cities at sub-optimal speeds, then so be it. We won’t be losing as much productivity to traffic as we do today, anyway.
So yes driverless cars might improve vehicle throughput a bit over what we have now but almost certainly not as much as the claims made by many about the technology unless we take the retrograde step of marginalising pedestrians (and cyclists).
I must say I hadn’t thought about the issue of how it would feel being in a driverless car and going through an intersection and seeing another car approach at speed from a different direction. That would definitely take some time to get used to and would be very scary if you were on a bike.
All up it just adds to my view that while driverless vehicles are coming, they won’t be here as soon or have as big an impact as some people claim. In the mean time we will likely continue to see aspects of autonomy increasing such as technology that helps improve safety or assist with parking.
Proponents of driverless cars often suggest the technology will make all sorts of significant changes to transport. Gone will be car ownership with people just hiring a car when they need one, like taxi’s only easier and cheaper. As such they say gone too will be the need for public transport, especially when you take away some of the benefits PT currently has like being able to do other things such as work, read, use a phone or even sleep. Further congestion will also be a thing of the past with these smart vehicles able to better work together rather than the randomness of humans. Of course the biggest and likely most accurate prediction will be safety as for a start these cars will obey the road rules so no speeding, no running red lights or any of the other bad habits human drivers have.
That all sounds wonderful however an article from CityLab highlights research showing that at least for some time driverless cars could actually make things worse on the roads.
A new simulation-based study of driverless cars questions how well these two big secondary benefits—less traffic and more comfort—can coexist. Trains are conducive to productivity in large part because they aren’t as jerky as cars. But if driverless cars mimic the acceleration and deceleration of trains, speeding up and slowing down more smoothly for the rider’s sake, they might sacrifice much of their ability to relieve traffic in the process.
“Acceleration has big impacts on congestion at intersections because it describes how quickly a vehicle begins to move,” Scott Le Vine of Imperial College London, who led the research, tells CityLab via email. “Think about being stuck behind an 18-wheeler when the light turns green. It accelerates very slowly, which means that you’re delayed much more than if you were behind a car that accelerated quickly.”
For their study, Le Vine and colleagues simulated traffic at a basic four-way urban intersection where 25 percent of the vehicles were driverless and the rest were standard. In some scenarios, the driverless cars accelerated and decelerated the way that light rail trains do—more comfortable than, say, riding in a taxi, but still a little jerky at times. In other scenarios, the cars started and stopped with the premium smoothness of high-speed rail.
Within these broad scenarios the researchers also tested alternatives that reduced speeds but improved smoothness, such as longer yellow lights or following distances. All told they modeled 16 scenarios against a baseline with all human-driven cars. The researchers then ran each simulation for an hour, repeated it 100 times, and calculated the average impact that scenario had in terms of traffic delay and road capacity.
In every single test scenario, driverless cars designed to create a comfortable, rail-style ride made congestion worse than it would have been in a baseline scenario with people behind every wheel.
So cars with fast acceleration and deceleration are obviously easy to make but that’s not what people are likely to want if you’re also trying to do some of the other activities mentioned earlier. Regardless traffic generally moves at the pace of the slowest vehicles so all it takes is one slow driver or driverless vehicle and many others will be slowed down too. I bet they won’t say that in the marketing brochures.
The interior of the Mercedes-Benz driverless car concept
I suspect this isn’t the only aspect of driverless cars that could create congestion. As an example the driverless taxi model that most people say will happen, is likely to result in a lot more vehicle movements as cars reposition themselves to pick up additional fares. That means that where roads are generally congested in one direction only, with driverless cars congestion could occur in both directions.
Last year we started to take a look at an emerging technology that some claim will revolutionise urban transport – driverless cars. My view is that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – if we wanted to, we could easily get the purported benefits by investing in existing, proven technology:
While driverless cars (or hoverboards for that matter) sound exciting, we can’t afford to pin all of our hopes on them. The pragmatic, proven way forward for transport in a big city is the same as it’s always been: Give people good transport choices by investing in efficient rapid transit networks, frequent bus services, and safe walking and cycling options.
If we want a safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly transport system, we can achieve it now by making smart policy changes. We don’t have to wait.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we did want to wait for driverless cars to solve our self-imposed problems. How long would it take, exactly?
The wait would be a function of three factors:
- First, how long it takes until driverless cars are proven and widely available for purchase in New Zealand. Most people agree that the technology is improving and may be ready for wide deployment sometime in the next decade. (Obviously, regulatory barriers could slow uptake as well.)
- Second, how long it will take the New Zealand vehicle fleet to turn over – i.e. how long until the cars that’s currently on the road is scrapped and replaced. At the moment, the average NZ vehicle is around 13 years old, meaning that we’d expect it to take at least 13 years for half of the fleet to be renewed. Full replacement of every car on the road could take 25-40 years – a quick glimpse at Trademe shows that people are still buying and selling cars built in the early 1980s.
- Third, and possibly most importantly, how rapidly driverless cars gain market share. Even after the introduction of driverless cars, most people will continue buying self-drive cars, which will dramatically slow the transition to a driverless fleet.
People have spent a lot of time thinking about the first two points, but I haven’t seen any commentary on the third one. Fortunately, we can draw upon some real-world data to get a sense of how rapidly consumers take up new vehicle technologies. Over the last decade, hybrid and electric cars have become commonly available, with cumulative global sales figures in the millions. While they tend to be more expensive to purchase, they offer savings on fuel costs and improvements in environmental performance.
So: How have consumers responded to recent technological transformations?
In short, they have hardly noticed. People are not rushing to give up their petrol (and self-driving) vehicles, even though there are now viable alternatives. A recent study from the US has found that hybrid vehicles’ market share has stayed low, even though car-makers have introduced many more new models. Over a decade after the Toyota Prius first arrived on the market, hybrids account for only one in every thirty new car sales in the US:
Obviously, uptake of hybrid and electric vehicles has been faster in some places than others. However, a 2013 New York Times article on new vehicle technologies found that alternative vehicles have failed to capture a majority of the market even in the most favourable environments:
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — It would seem to be a good time to own an electric car in Santa Monica. From the charging stations dotted around town to the dedicated public parking spaces — all provided at no cost by the city — Santa Monica has rolled out the welcome mat for electric cars.
But even here, in this wealthy, environmentally conscious city of 90,000 west of Los Angeles, only a core group of owners has switched from traditional gasoline-powered cars.
Less than 4 percent of registered cars run only on battery power, according to an analysis by the industry researcher Edmunds.com of data from R.L. Polk, which records vehicle registrations nationwide. Hybrids, which run on some combination of gasoline and battery power, account for 15.5 percent, the data says, but many of those are traditional hybrids, which do not require a plug-in cord for recharging.
In other words, after a decade, over 80% of Santa Monica’s car fleet is still composed of conventional petrol cars. And that’s about as good as it gets anywhere in the US, which is on the leading edge of many new trends in vehicle technologies.
The picture isn’t much different outside of the US. Research on vehicle fleets in 19 countries shows that there are only two countries where hybrids and electric vehicles account for more than 1% of vehicle fleets. Norway (largely electric cars) and the Netherlands (mostly hybrids) were far and away the leaders in uptake, due to extraordinarily generous subsidies for buyers. Everywhere else lagged far behind:
In short, people don’t seem to be rushing out to buy new vehicle technologies. Although we all have the option to buy electric now, few people do in practice. It is very likely that driverless cars, when or if they become readily available, will follow a similar pattern. Initially, at least, they will be costlier and seem riskier than self-drive cars. Current rates of uptake for hybrid and electric cars suggest that it could take half a century or more for petrol cars to vanish from the road. Why should the transition to driverless cars be any faster?
All in all, recent market realities should encourage caution about driverless cars. Slow rates of uptake for new vehicle technologies mean that they aren’t going to solve our problems any time soon. A 2014 London School of Economics report on the state of urban mobility (pdf) described the dilemma of vehicle technology innovation well. They noted:
Regarding the development of new transport technologies, key actors (above all the automotive sector) have failed to convert technological progress into substantive improvements in energy efficiency and vehicle emissions or more broadly transform modes of accessibility in cities.
The clear implication is that if we want better transport outcomes, we must implement better transport policies. The data shows that waiting on new technologies is not a sensible option. If we want to lower the road toll, we must invest in safe roads, including protected cycle infrastructure. If we want a workable solution to congestion, we must build rapid transit infrastructure, bus lanes and walking and cycling improvements to give people the choice to avoid it.
There is no realistic alternative – so why don’t we get on with it?
A new NZIER research report, entitled “Disruption on the road ahead! How auto technology will change much more than just our commute to work“, makes the case that new technologies will upend urban transport systems:
Near autonomous cars followed by driverless vehicles (smart cars) will transform our commute to work and much more over the next two decades.
Car-based technologies hold the promise of reducing the billions of dollars we spend on roads by improving how we use them and by saving lives.
We need to rethink our reliance on infrastructure solutions to transport problems and look at how to effectively embrace the new technologies.
If you read on, the report implies that we should stop investing in public transport and count on driverless cars to allow roads to flow more efficiently. The report does not grapple with the question of where the driverless cars will be stored – in spite of the fact that parking is one of the costliest elements of a car-heavy urban transport system. Space is expensive in cities and cars, even driverless ones, do not use space efficiently.
Now, let me be perfectly clear: this is a lazy analysis. As I have previously argued, waiting on unproven technologies to solve our problems is a bad strategy, especially when there are proven technologies that can be implemented right now. It is more realistic to invest in frequent bus networks, rapid transit infrastructure like Auckland’s rail network and the Northern Busway, and safe cycling facilities like the separated Beach Road cycleway. (Auckland Transport, like many other transport agencies, understands this and is getting on with it!)
However, if we set aside NZIER’s technological utopianism, they are making a reasonable point: When a transformational technology emerges, governments must make complementary public investments to enable society to benefit.
With that in mind, I would like to point out that a technology revolution has happened over the last decade – and gone largely unnoticed by New Zealand’s transport agencies. I’m talking about electric bikes, which are now proven, readily-available technology. Several companies are selling them in New Zealand, with basic models going for under $1000, which is price-competitive with a new road bike. In the Netherlands, 19% of all new bikes purchased in 2013 were electric.
Why is this so revolutionary? Simply put, because electric bikes flatten out all the hills on a cycling route. By providing a bit of extra oomph when riding up inclines, they remove a major barrier to cycling in hilly cities like Auckland and Wellington. Suddenly, the vertiginous climb out of the Queen Street gully might as well be pancake-flat Christchurch.
Easy as… climbing the world’s steepest residential street on an electric bike (Source)
Even on flat sections, the additional power provided by the electric motor can make cycling much more relaxing and gentle. That may not matter to the young and/or fit, but it’s a boon to people who are less fit or only starting to cycle.
Consequently, electric bikes have the potential to majorly disrupt New Zealand’s urban transport markets. According to my calculations based on 2013 Census journey to work data, one-third of all commutes in Auckland are under 5 kilometres. At present, only a very small minority of those trips are done by bike. Recent technological change means that could shift, and rapidly. Taking all those short trips on bikes would have a much more fundamental impact on congestion than driverless cars.
However, there are some big barriers to getting the full benefits of this transformative technology. Simply put, our roads often feel too unsafe to ride on. People on bikes often must compete for road space with cars, buses, and trucks. They have to look out for cars backing out of driveways and drivers opening doors into their path. Over a lifetime these risks are more than balanced out by the health benefits of cycling, but they can feel a bit intimidating.
If only there was something we could do to make streets feel safer for cycling… (Source)
There is a strong case for public investment and policy changes to unlock the benefits of electric bikes. It is relatively easy to make cycling safe and common by investing in a complete cycle network. This means:
- Implementing more off-road cycle paths like the successful Northwestern Cycleway and Grafton Gully Cycleway, and the impending Nelson Street and Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive cycleways
- Putting separated on-street cycle lanes, like the excellent Beach Road cycleway, on every major road where there is enough space
- Slowing speed limits to improve safety on side streets and alternative routes like the Dominion Road parallel routes.
This can all be done immediately at a relatively low cost. It will enable us to benefit from a transformative technology that actually exists right now, rather than waiting decades for an unproven technology. So why aren’t the enthusiasts for “disruptive technology” taking notice?
The 1989 sci-fi comedy film Back to the Future II gave audiences a glimpse of what transport would be like in the far-off future date of 2015. Flying cars would merge and flow seamlessly in midair motorways, allowing for cities to be large, low-density, and free of congestion. (Something that is ordinarily a geometric impossibility.) And, of course, there was Marty McFly’s famous hoverboard:
Now it’s 2014, and I’ve got to ask: Dude, where’s my hoverboard? Why haven’t any of the promised revolutionary breakthroughs in transport technology actually happened?
Or, more generally: Should New Zealand wait for new, unproven technologies to solve its transport problems, or should it invest in existing technologies instead?
A few people, including the new Minister of Transport, have called for New Zealand to look to driverless cars as a solution to road congestion. Matt reviewed the state of the debate in a recent post. I’d like to look at the issue from an economic perspective instead.
Economists often use the concept of a “production possibilities frontier” to display the alternative production and consumption options available to an economy at a point in time. Here’s an example of a hypothetical PPF for an economy which only produces two goods (“guns” and “butter”). Points inside the curve (like point A) represent underutilisation of resources, while points outside the curve (like point X) are impossible to sustain.
Importantly, the shape and position of an economy’s PPF depends upon the technology (and techniques) that are in use. Over the long term, economic growth means shifting the curve outwards by adopting better, more efficient technology. And I’d like to stress “adopting” rather than “inventing”. While some countries have done well by developing new technologies, the best way for underdeveloped countries to raise their living standards has been to adapt proven technologies. Technology transfer is almost always easier and cheaper than inventing totally new technologies.
This is how east Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and (most recently) China have become wealthy. They didn’t wait around for unproven pie-in-the-sky ideas to come along – they just figured out how to do the same things that successful countries were already doing. If Japan had decided, in the 1950s, to await the semiconductor revolution rather than figuring out how to make cheap copies of American consumer electronics and cars, it would still be a poor country.
The same is true for New Zealand’s transport system. In economic jargon, our transport system is far behind the technology frontier. While we have an extensive and relatively well-managed road network, we have failed to adopt a number of technologies and techniques that have been proven elsewhere. As a result, Auckland has:
- A suburban rail network that can’t provide metro-style levels of service due to the lack of the 3 kilometre City Rail Link tunnel – in spite of the evidence from numerous overseas cities that frequent rail systems are efficient ways of moving a lot of people without congestion
- A serious lack of safe cycling infrastructure – in spite of the fact that cities that have made cheap, efficient investments in cycling have reaped the rewards in terms of health and wellbeing
- A single busway, and slow (but steady) progress on further busways – in spite of the fact that they are a cheap and easy-to-implement ways of getting high-quality rapid transit to underserved areas of cities.
Because these technologies already exist, we could implement them now and reap the benefits immediately. If we want to rapidly improve our transport system – i.e. move our PPF outwards – we should look to existing but underutilised technologies rather than awaiting this decade’s version of Marty McFly’s hoverboard.
A recent CityLab series on the future of transportation makes this point clearly. The cities that are moving ahead rapidly are largely investing in proven technologies like bus rapid transit, light rail, and cycling infrastructure. (As well as low-cost improvements to existing technologies like bike share.) They are not holding off on smart investments while awaiting new technologies.
Auckland desperately needs technology transfer (Source: Wikipedia)
By contrast, there are three big reasons why waiting on unproven technologies like driverless cars will make us worse off.
- Waiting for new technologies imposes a significant opportunity cost. If we use the future promise of driverless cars as a reason to avoid investing in the City Rail Link, safe cycling infrastructure, and busways right now, we will sacrifice years of better transport outcomes.
- Waiting for new technologies is risky, because new technologies may not ever succeed. An in-depth Slate article on driverless cars highlights how far they need to come before widespread deployment. There are big problems to solve in navigation and safety in poor weather conditions. Computers are still not very good at dealing with unpredictable situations.
- Even if the technology was available today, it would still take decades to replace New Zealand’s entire vehicle fleet. New Zealanders own 2.7 million passenger cars, and it would cost tens of billions to fully replace them. New cars entering the fleet today will still be on the road in 15-20 years. In other words, we wouldn’t see the benefits of a fully driverless vehicle fleet until the 2040s or so.
In addition, many people actually enjoy driving quite a lot and wouldn’t really want to be chauffeured around by a robot. Driverless cars are not a good substitute for a V8!
While driverless cars (or hoverboards for that matter) sound exciting, we can’t afford to pin all of our hopes on them. The pragmatic, proven way forward for transport in a big city is the same as it’s always been: Give people good transport choices by investing in efficient rapid transit networks, frequent bus services, and safe walking and cycling options.
It may seem boring, but as an economist I’ll take tried-and-true over utopian fantasies any day.
A few days ago there were two major transport stories, the first was about a new record for rail patronage and the other topic was about the government looking to make it easier for driverless cars to be on New Zealands roads.
The prospect of cars travelling New Zealand highways with no one behind the wheel is moving closer says new Transport Minister Simon Bridges. Officials are reviewing legislation allowing for the testing of umanned autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Mr Bridges has pledged to work with environmental interests while also pursuing the Government’s road building programme.
Mr Bridges said he was committed to “a balanced approach” and ongoing investment roads were important even from a green perspective, “over time as we move to electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles”.
Mr Bridges said the Government was not doing a great deal to accommodate autonomous vehicle technology, “but I don’t think there’s any doubt that if you look at what’s going on internationally, maybe not in the next couple of years, but over time we will see driverless vehicles and that will have implications, like for example less congestion because vehicles can travel closer together”.
We’ve discussed driverless cars a bit in the past so I’m going to try and not rehash those arguments too much. What I do want to touch on is the odd relationship between them and rail. By that I mean opponents of rail investment often like to claim that rail is an old technology – despite the fact that modern rail systems involve some very sophisticated tech – and that we should instead look to the future which they see as being driverless cars. Of course some rail systems have been driverless for decades.
One of those opponents of rail investment is Phil McDermott who runs the ironically named Cities Matter blog which argues for low density and auto centric cities. He was a guest on Radio NZs The Panel talking about both rail and driverless cars however his contradictions were huge and probably about 0.8 on the David Seymour scale. The section on The Panel starts from ~11:15 and McDermott comes in from ~14:10
or listen here
He starts off by dragging up the old cliché that trains run on fixed routes but that roads allow for flexibility and then says that if the city develops as expected that people will be travelling across the city between centres. Of course everyone traipsing across town to dispersed centres is something we’ve been doing for decades and has only led to more and more congestion. The intention of the Auckland Plan is to focus growth in and around the central city, a handful of major metropolitan centres and a wider range of local town centres which are all linked by high quality public transport. It’s that public transport network, of which rail is an integrated part, that will be key to moving a huge volume of people around and doing so free of congestion.
Here are some of the other points and contradictions he made.
- Trains in Auckland are full by the time they get to the CBD but that we shouldn’t build the CRL as he thinks the trains won’t carry a lot of people. You really have to wonder what’s going on in his brain as it works through that logic.
- That the CRL doesn’t do enough for the transport system despite the fact it doubles the capacity of it.
- That we shouldn’t have intensification near rail lines as somehow it creates a high marginal cost for each extra trip however later he says if we want rail to work in NZ he says we need lots of cars on the road with people driving to stations with big park n ride facilities.
- That road building is ok because in his view the marginal costs are low which of course conveniently ignores that we’ve exhausted all the easy road building options and are now faced with massive costs for projects, often for not much gain in capacity or mobility.
- That driverless cars will increase car use and that it will make congestion worse, but it’s all ok because they might not be as polluting as our current fleet.
Many of the views he expressed are downright odd and I get the impression that what people like McDermott are really after is to preserve the status quo which they likely currently benefit from. Some might wonder why bother to even discuss the interview but unfortunately we still see the likes of Phil trotted out on a regular basis.
Occasionally someone will argue that we don’t need to invest in public transport as new technology like driverless cars will come along and render our roads much safer and more efficient. In some cases they say the impact on the transport system will be similar to the one that private vehicles started having on transport. At the transport debate just over a week ago Transport Minister even spoke about a future of diverless vehicles after being given a ride in one of Google’s prototype autonomous vehicles.
We’re told this technology is just around the corner and it will soon be on the market. However in many ways it seems much like a carrot that’s constantly hanging from a stick in front of us as despite the progress being made by Google the technology is still a long way away from becoming a reality.
Many motorists dream of the day they can sit back and relax while their car drives itself.
And while Google and other companies are working hard to make autonomous vehicles a reality, it could take years to create a car that can negotiate complex situations on the road – including wet weather conditions.
Google’s self-driving cars can’t currently cope in heavy rain or snow – or find their way around 99 per cent of the US, an insider has admitted.
According to MIT Technology Review, the current prototype cars are very reliant on maps to navigate and can’t react like a human driver, dodging potholes and other hazards.
Google’s cars have driven themselves over 700,000 miles (1,126,540km) but they can’t cope in snowy conditions and cannot negotiate heavy rain.
Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team, said this is because the detection technology is not yet strong enough to separate certain objects from weather conditions.
While the cars’ cameras can spot a traffic light changing, they can be confused by strong sunlight.
They don’t distinguish between an empty plastic bag – which could be easily driven over – or a rock, so cars must drive around both. They also can’t detect uncovered manholes or potholes.
Mr Urmson told the publication: ‘I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car.’
The cars ‘see’ pedestrians as moving blocks of pixels and know to stop, but unlike a cautious human driver, they could not spot a traffic policeman at the side of the road, waving for traffic to stop – which could lead to trouble.
Those seem like some fairly serious issues that need to be addressed before the technology could even be considered for public use. For their part Google thinks the issues could be resolved in 5 years-time but I suspect that timeframe could turn out to be a pretty wild guess. Going further, even if Google manage to get everything working fantastically within that time frame it’s unlikely there’ll be more than a handful in the country for quite some time and it would take decades before they’re owned in any quantities. For the time being at least it seems like we still not going to see any change to the status quo.
An interesting article in the herald this morning about Gerry Brownlee who to took a trip to the California to have a look at “alternative transport” options but only appears to have looked at cars
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says his scepticism about electric cars has all but disappeared after he took a spin along the Los Angeles coastal freeway in an electric sports car.
Mr Brownlee investigated alternative transport options while on a trip to the United States and also took Google’s driverless car for a 16km trip around San Francisco’s freeways.
In LA he test-drove the Tesla SP85, which is considered one of the world’s most advanced electric cars with a range of nearly 500km and a top speed of more than 210km/h.
The minister, who owns a diesel-powered Hyundai Sante Fe, raved about his zero-emission joyride. “I’ve been somewhat of a sceptic around electric vehicles. I don’t want to say I’m a total convert but I’ve been incredibly impressed by the technology that I’ve seen.
Personally I’m fairly optimistic about the impact electric cars will have, especially in New Zealand where a lot of power is already generated through renewable sources. While we at the blog obviously want to see a lot better public transport options provided to help give people choice – and we expect a lot of people would use PT when that happens – plenty of people will still choose to drive. Removing, or at least significantly reducing emissions will have a positive impact on air quality and the liveability of urban areas. But while electric cars might not produce emissions, they won’t do anything to reduce or ease congestion.
With the vast majority people in urban areas probably travelling less than 50km a day, the battery range is simply not an issue (assuming you remember to charge it). In fact with the range these things have, trips from Auckland trips to typical summer holiday destinations like the Bay of Islands or Coromandel Peninsula would not be a problem so it is only really long distance road trips that would be impacted and those are things most people don’t tend to do all that regularly.
Here is a promo video for the electric car Gerry had a go on.
As for the impact that driver-less cars would have, they could certainly be a way to save a little bit of money on having to hire ministerial limo drivers but I’m not sure about just how much congestion relief they will offer, as we have explained before here and here.
“When you’ve got a car that can perform to the sort of specifications that I saw at the Tesla factory you could just see that we’re not too many years off there being quite a significant percentage of electric vehicles in our fleet.”
He said battery technology and infrastructure was progressing much faster that he would have expected.
He pointed to Tesla’s plan to have battery change stations across the US by 2016.
Mr Brownlee said he did not expect the number of electric cars to rapidly increase on New Zealand roads, but said it was important to make sure regulations encouraged low-emissions vehicles. There are believed to be fewer than 100 here now.
The main policy designed to encourage growth in electric car use was the exemption from road user charges, which was introduced in 2009 and last year extended until 2020. Mr Brownlee said driverless cars were also likely to one day play a role in reducing congestion on motorways.
I think the discussion of electric cars and road taxes really highlights why we need to be starting to discuss if funding transport via fuel taxes are necessarily the best option. This is especially the case as we move towards much more fuel efficient petrol powered cars as well as hybrids while at the same time the government is spending like a drunken sailor on massive motorways. The article finishes with:
The minister road-tested Google’s prototype, which uses a combination of sensors and GPS to get commuters to their destination as efficiently as possible. He described it as “a very advanced form of cruise control”.
Even a small increase in the proportion of driverless cars was expected to cut congestion because all aspects of human error were eliminated. The cars were allowed on some US roads, but had not been developed for commercial production.
Mr Brownlee said he had asked the ministry to have a closer look at how it could best encourage the use of alternative transport as the technology developed.
While I think the move towards more fuel efficient and potentially even driverless cars are a good move, I would hardly call them alternative transport. Instead more of a evolution of what we have today. If he was really interested in alternatives he could have looked at what even “car mad” LA is doing with its transport spending, particularly with Measure R where people voted to increase taxes to pay for primarily a large range of public transport improvements.
On a slightly separate note, one my scariest driving experiences ever occurred in San Francisco a few years ago. I was on a road trip with my wife and some family members and we were driving down the 101 freeway at night somewhere around the airport area (I was driving). The freeway was something like 5 or 6 lanes wide in each direction was relatively empty with only a few cars in the far distance. We were in the middle lane and had cars flanking either side of us and when we came around a corner were faced with an oven sitting in the middle of our lane just a few hundred metres ahead of us. The cars beside us prevented a lane change so was a case of having to apply some rapid deceleration to be able to change lanes behind some other cars. An oven is certainly the last thing you expected to see on a road and would have been an interesting conversation trying to explain an accident with one to a rental/insurance company.