Menu Close

Utopia or nightmare? The answer lies in how we embrace self-driving, electric and shared vehicles – Jake Whitehead and Michael Kane

This is a controversial issue, and readers are invited to respond with comments.

Source: Flickr cc

Emerging transport disruptions could lead to a series of nightmare scenarios and poorer transport systems unless we have sensible and informed public policy to avoid this. Of course, some foresee a utopian scene: self-driving electric vehicles zipping around our cities serving all our transport needs without road accidents or exhaust fumes. But the shift to this transport utopia might not be as straightforward as some think.

In a newly published paper [1] we have explored potential problems linked to vehicle electrification, autonomous vehicles, the sharing economy and the increasing density of cities. We examined what could happen if these four trends are not all properly managed together.

Much has been written about the potential benefits of these disruptions:

  1. electric vehicles powered by renewable energy could cut costs and fossil fuel emissions, and eliminate the significant impacts of pollution on public health and the environment;

  2. shared vehicles could reduce transport costs and traffic volume;

  3. autonomous vehicles could eliminate traffic accidents, reduce congestion and increase mobility for everyone;

  4. increasing urban density could bring significant economic benefits through efficiency gains when people and businesses are closer together.

However, the interplay between these trends could also result in nightmare scenarios. We developed a Future Mobility Disruption Framework to investigate what could happen if even one of these trends is not actively managed.

Nightmare 1: vehicle electrification + autonomous vehicles + increasing urban density

If policy fails to support and manage a shift away from private vehicle owner- ship towards car-sharing, then several negative impacts are likely. In this scenario, electric cars will be cheaper to run and still privately owned. This could encourage more people to drive and create more traffic. The convenience of self-driving cars with low operating costs might also encourage a shift away from traditional public transport and could conceivably cause its collapse.

Nightmare 2: autonomous vehicles + increasing urban density + shift towards sharing economy

If people shift from private car owner- ship towards shared, autonomous vehicles, significant transport cost savings could be possible. By replacing public transport systems, shared vehicle services could arguably provide cheap transport for all. While these benefits are obvious, without vehicle electrification, the use of fossil fuels would significantly increase emissions. Though a reduction in emissions is plausible with a shift away from private vehicle ownership, the low cost and convenience of shared vehicles could lead to higher demand and more trips, thus increasing emissions. This pollut- ion would increase rates of premature deaths and diseases in our cities, and worsen the impacts of climate change.

Nightmare 3: increasing urban density + shift towards sharing economy + vehicle electrification

We would again see a shift away from private vehicle ownership towards shared, electric vehicles. This would reduce transport and pollution-related health costs However, in this scenario, the vehicles would not be autonomous.

The shared vehicle fleet would require human drivers. This would result in higher costs, less efficiency and more accidents. Ultimately, this would be a barrier to the long-term sustainability and widespread use of shared vehicles.

Nightmare 4: shift towards sharing economy + vehicle electrification + autonomous vehicles

So what would happen in the face of three of the transport disruptions occurring without increasing urban density? Electric and autonomous vehicles would significantly reduce transport costs. Combined with the availability of shared services, this would lead to a substantial shift away from private vehicle ownership towards shared, electric, autonomous vehicles (SEAVs). These vehicles would be efficient, safe and convenient, with minimal environmental impacts. At first this would seem like the ideal scenario to aim for. However, it ignores the potential impacts on urban form and density.

Without policies supporting urban density and public transport, a shift towards SEAVs would probably encourage sprawling, car-dominated cities as people would have fewer reasons to live close to work. SEAVs would be cheap and convenient. They could pick people up from their front door and drop them directly at their destination. People would likely not be as concerned with road congestion as they could carry out other activities during the trip – even working during the drive.

If people feel less restricted in where they choose to live, they might opt for larger houses and lots, further away from cities. This would not only place additional demands on infrastructure but also have a significant impact on the natural environments surrounding our cities.

This form of lower-density living would discourage active transport options, like walking and cycling, which would have negative health impacts. Urban sprawl could also have negative economic impacts as people and businesses spread out and lose the benefits of being close together.

Managing disruptions as a whole

Each of the four trends could independently yield many benefits. However, an examination of the four nightmare scenarios reveals that, without holistic planning and policy support for all four disruptions, negative unintended consequences are likely. Planners and policymakers must consider how these disruptions will interact.

As detailed in our paper, a range of possible policy interventions is available for managing the risks associated with these trends. These include reform of road taxation, supportive regulation and integrated planning.

Only a holistic approach to managing these disruptions will enable us to arrive at a future transport utopia. More discussion about these transport disruptions can be found in a forthcoming book, Three Revolutions [2].



Source: The Conversation, 16 Feb 2018

Authors: Jake Whitehead is Research Fellow, The University of Queensland.

Michael Kane is Director, Innovation and Economic Strategies, Economic Developent Queensland; and Research Associate, Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, Curtin University.

Comment from Graham Strong: They lost me at scenario 3. There’s an inter-changability between electric and autonomous vehicles that wasn’t discussed. Nor were the levels of autonomy. The details matter because it made me sceptical about the articles basis. Why is an assumption made about more electric cars = more accidents when its probable that the default for all electric cars will be some level of autonomy i.e. emergency braking. Research from modelling or opinion? Scenario 3 seemed to presuppose that all autonomous vehicles will be level 5 (fully auto) and ICE powered. That was very confusing.

Jake Whitehead in reply: To clarify, the scenario’s explored here are describing the extremes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will or won’t happen, but to simply explore the worst case scenario to prompt further thought, debate and research into how we can try to avoid these extreme outcomes.

The assumption is full autonomy; again we didn’t go into different levels of autonomy because we were examining the extremes in each direction.

In scenario 3 it is describing a no/limited autonomy future (SAE levels 0/1/2). It is not saying that electric cars will result in more accidents, but that there would be more accidents with human drivers compared to fully autonomous vehicles.

As you correctly point out, most EV’s are likely to come with some level of autonomy – and already do – and as such will assist in reducing accidents. One of the key points here is that AV’s may not necessarily be electric (and vice versa) without the correct policy settings.

There is a real risk that Australia will become a dumping ground for the world’s most polluting vehicles (arguably we already are) without reasonable efficiency and emissions standards, and this could continue to apply in a self-driving vehicle future.

Leave a Reply