What if a technology revolution happened and nobody noticed?

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.

electric cycle 07122012.JPG JPEG 0540287993

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.

Copenhagen cyclists wikipedia

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?

Dude, where’s my hoverboard?

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:

Back to the Future 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.

Production_Possibilities_Frontier_Curve.svg

Source: Wikipedia

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.

PPF_expansion.svg

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.

Rail vs Driverless Cars

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.

Auckland Plan - Development Strategy

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.

Driverless in the rain

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.

Gerry discovers electric cars

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.

What future for driverless cars?

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.

He concludes:

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.

Are driverless cars the future?

I wonder if you can guess who wrote the quote below?

Cars are noisy, they’re dangerous, they emit fumes, they take up so much space that our cities seem to be built for cars first and people second, and they are not much fun to sit in on a jammed Auckland motorway.

The price of petrol seems to go higher and higher, and it is true that some of the roads being built which seem like a great idea (e.g. the Puhoi to Wellsford motorway extension) don’t actually pass muster with some cost-benefit analyses.

If you read the quoted text above you could be forgiven for thinking it is something that we had written but no, this text came from a blog post yesterday on the Act party website. Now after picking yourself up off the floor and thinking that there may be a glimmer of hope the party was finally be starting to understand transport and urban issues, you can think again. The rest of the post is dedicated to enthusing how driverless cars and other technologies mean we should keep investing in roads and only roads. So lets have a look at some of their claims in a bit more detail.

The first claim is that driverless cars will give people some of the benefits of PT by allowing them to do things like read books or do work instead of driving while cars will also be driven better without humans at the wheel. Both claims are probably true but to really see the benefit of these cars we will likely have to wait until a substantial proportion of the existing vehicle fleet is replaced. Last year there were ~145,000  new cars registered and the total car fleet rose to just over 2.8 million vehicles. Even if every single car that came into the country tomorrow was driverless, it would take at least 20 years to replace the current fleet. In reality we are probably looking at more like 30-40 years, perhaps longer as it will take a while for the technology to start being embedded in all new cars made, that’s a long time to wait.

Of course what happens after your driverless car drops you at work. Well Act suggest that the car will take itself away somewhere and park itself. That all sounds nice but when every other person is using a car at the same time it means we either need to spend millions on additional parking buildings to house them all. Alternatively they could just go home and return when you need to be picked up but that brings about its own problems. What happens if you don’t have a set time to leave a certain place, does that mean you need to request your car and wait for perhaps 30 minutes or more for it to arrive?  Alternatively perhaps they are suggesting some kind of shared car scheme in which case it would likely require the government/council to purchase huge numbers of these driverless cars, how much would that cost taxpayers.

Act and many driverless car advocates also suggest that these computer controlled cars will be able to run closely together allowing for much more capacity to be achieved out of the existing road network. If that is the case then isn’t it a perfect reason NOT to invest in new roads as we would be better off to wait and see exactly what impact these cars have before spending millions on roads we may not need. I can’t help but think the party still ignores the reality of real live and still has this video on repeat:

Of course one thing all of the driverless car advocates don’t realise is there is a pretty big elephant in the room. As these cars will be so much smarter and also programmed to avoid crashes they will automatically stop (and tell the other vehicles around them to stop) if someone walks out on to the road. It shouldn’t take long for people to realise that they can easily take back the streets but just using them how they want and the cars will be forced let it happen. So perhaps we should welcome driverless cars, we can get shared spaces without it needing to cost ratepayers a thing (bet they didn’t think about this issue).