Thursday, October 23, 2014

Driving Blind – Driverless Cars Ramp up the Risks for Rail Transit

In a brief radio interview yesterday I was asked about the possible consequences of driverless cars for Auckland’s planned big spend on its rail transit system.  My sound bite wasn’t too coherent, so here are some follow-up thoughts.

Driverless cars are coming

The driverless car is with us today, and its working.  The Minister of Transport’s expectation that it is “moving closer” is in line with international expectations and experience.[1]

In fact, the fully autonomous vehicle is just a further step – admittedly a big one – in the progressive reduction in the driver’s role in vehicle operation.  Automated train systems have operated since the 1960s.  Even aircraft today perform most operations automatically, and we are well on the way to the technology where they even interact to manage air traffic movements.

We can look forward to driverless road vehicles within the foreseeable future.  We are already well on the way.  Consider gains over the past 30 years by way of automatic transmission, power steering, automatic braking systems, electronic stability control, backing sensors, and most recently automated parking.  These innovations, while taking time to diffuse, reduce driver-related accidents and lift the efficiency of vehicle operation. 
Throw in the gains readily available from enhanced traffic management technologies, the use of GPS for better route planning and of GPS-derived Floating Car Data for real time traffic management and we have the promise of ongoing gains in efficiency in on-road vehicles and the prospect of a revolution in personal mobility.  And that’s on top of the promise of further gains in fuel efficiency following the 25% lift recorded by the US EPA between 2004 and 2014 and the impact of alternative fuels.

What are the consequences?

The Rand Corporation recently published a comprehensive study on Autonomous Vehicle Technology that is worth a look.

From this and my take some of the gains we might expect from driverless cars include: 
  • The costs of travel will diminish as drivers are frees up to engage in other tasks and as greater travel efficiencies are realised;
  • Lower accident costs because there will be fewer of them;
  • Vehicle efficiency will improve as a result of: the capacity to use lighter materials; easier uptake of alternative fuels; smoother acceleration and deceleration;
  • Development of more efficient parking facilities;
  • Network productivity gains from higher vehicle densities and fewer disruptive events. 

This may not mean less congestion.  Numbers on the road may increase as people currently transport disadvantaged find it easier to access and operate motor vehicles.  Cost reductions are likely to boost car use.  And such gains may encourage more long-distance commuting.

On the other hand, the use of driverless vehicles is part of a convergence changing the environmental impact of motoring.  Together with the shift to smart cars for urban travel and to alternative fuels, driverless cars will contribute to a fall in the emission of particulates and CO2 .

A new mode of public transport?

Driverless cars offer a new take on public transport by providing for shared vehicles that respond to individual demands.  They may be held in private pools; widely accessible vehicles may be in public ownership, or vehicles may held and maintained by a variety of organisations, including specialist operators (equivalent to today’s taxi or rental companies), bodies corporate on behalf of residents of apartments, or businesses on behalf of employees.  

Such arrangements will support the higher densities favoured by urban planners, reduce the costs of car ownership, and maintain efficient point-to-point travel.  In addition, vehicle pooling may encourage more trip sharing, lifting car occupancies.

Supporting fixed route public transport

So what will the consequences be for buses and trains?  Buses should benefit, both in terms of enhanced vehicle flow and, in due course, through adoption of the technology.  This could lead to smaller, more flexible buses with variable routing better meeting demand.  In other words, buses will be part of the revolution in personal mobility resulting from autonomous vehicle development.

Rail is a different matter.  In increasingly fragmented cities, fixed route transit is at a distinct disadvantage, especially when it is based on a limited network.  For rail to penetrate in Auckland it requires either effective feeder road access to park-and-ride facilities or the clustering of high density dwellings and jobs around already busy stations. 

Driverless cars could contribute to both of these.  The intensity of local cross-commuting required to support park-and-ride facilities may be eased by use of driverless cars.  The heightened congestion associated with higher densities in the inner city and on arterial roads targeted by the Auckland plan might be similarly eased by their adoption by residents as well as commuters.

But will driverless cars save rail?

While the adoption of driverless cars might marginally improve the effectiveness of rail transit, this will still be constrained by the intrinsic limits of rail .  Unlike rail, personal vehicles do not run empty for much of the time.  They operate from point to point and largely avoid the high time costs of transfers.  There may be some waiting time in accessing shared cars, but the inconvenience is a lot less than that associated with fixed timetables.  And with technical gains the externalities associated with car use will continue to fall.

Traffic flows should improve, costs fall, and convenience increase for car users.  Car-based transport will be more accessible, reducing the numbers dependent on traditional public transport.  Buses will also be more effective.  None of these positive outcomes bode well for rail with its high capital costs, the lumpy nature of investment, and high operating, maintenance, and depreciation costs.  What they do is increase the fiscal risk associated with Auckland’s plans for an inner city rail loop or extensions to the airport or North Shore as the alternative of road-based transport becomes that much more attractive.

The risk profile of rail investment is already high.  The prospect of driverless cars raises it higher.

Driving a revolution?

In just 25 years we have seen revolutions that have fundamentally changed the ways in which we deal with information, communicate, work, socialise and recreate.  There is every reason to expect the advent of driverless cars to signal a similar revolution in personal mobility. 

Who today would buy a typewriter, a telex machine, or a floppy disk?  So why buy a railway?


[1]              See for example recent articles in The Scotsman and Forbes Magazine.


1 comment:

Phil McDermott said...

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research has just published its views on the impact of the disruptive potential of auto technology, "Disruption on the road ahead", available at Among other things, it concludes that "we need to rethink our reliance on infrastructure solutions to transport problems".