What is Driving the Push for Driverless Cars?

Removing the driver from a vehicle sounds simple enough but the ramifications of this change will ripple through the transport sector and our cities just as the horseless carriage once did over a century ago. The transition to driverless cars will require significant legislative reform as well as substantial amounts of public and private investment to improve and upgrade our ageing infrastructure. So, what is driving the push for connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) and is it really necessary?

Here are some complex issues that traditional transport models have struggled to resolve:

  • Road safety – every year, nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes around the world. The rate of road fatalities in Australia has stagnated in recent years to around 1,200 deaths per year while the rate of injuries continues to rise at a rate between 15 and 30 times the death rate[1]. The solution to eliminate road crashes must consider that nearly 90% of all crashes involve human error.
  • Congestion – the cost of congestion to Australia in 2015 was $16.5 billion and without major policy changes, costs are predicted to reach up to $37.3 billion by 2030[2]. To remedy this requires significant funding to build additional roads and improve public and active transport options.
  • Equity of access – 4% of Australians could not travel to the places they needed to visit, with transport disadvantage more pronounced in families with young children, people with disability and Indigenous Australians[3]. Our ageing population will see the number of people over 85 years double in the next 25 years and 43% of those over 85 years[4] are likely to be affected by dementia.
  • Connectivity – transport disadvantage is quite common in specific geographical locations such as ‘fringe’ areas, and rural and remote Australia, due to such factors as poor public transport infrastructure, a higher proportion of low-income households and the need to travel further distances, often leading to poorer health and social outcomes[3].
  • Network utilisation/optimisation – today, navigational systems direct drivers to their destination based on a limited knowledge of the network and travel times. Current navigation technologies make route decisions based on the prioritisation of individual trips, resulting in a non-optimised network[5]. This can lead to congestion or poor use of existing networks and resources.
  • Sustainability – transport is Australia’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with cars being responsible for roughly half of all transport emissions. Emissions from transport increased nearly 60% since 1990[6]. Electrification of vehicles and eco-driving practises can help to reduce carbon emissions, improving air quality and supporting better health and wellbeing.

A range of initiatives have been tried and tested to alleviate these complex challenges, however regardless of the efforts and good intentions of regulators, industry and the community, these pesky problems have been difficult to fully resolve under the traditional transport model. So, is automating and connecting vehicles really the panacea to all our transport problems? It may be, if we think about these vehicles as mobility platforms with advanced technologies to support humans get around our communities safer, easier, more efficiently and sustainably.

The simplest way to think about driverless cars is in levels of automation technology and to what degree it performs the driving task, such as adaptive cruise control and crash avoidance features. By automating and connecting vehicles we could also render certain crash types virtually obsolete and CAVs will never intentionally speed, drive drunk, offer better protection for pedestrians and cyclists and also fill the mobility gap for those who cannot or choose not to drive. That being said, CAVs should be designed to manage over-trust and driver complacency issues, particularly in semi-autonomous or conditional automated vehicles.

By allowing vehicles to connect we could also resolve a raft of safety, equity, access and network optimisation challenges. If vehicles knew where other vehicles were, they would seamlessly merge in traffic, while dynamic traffic signals would phase and activate depending on the traffic flow. Fleet and freight transport would be better optimised, eliminating empty loads, and dynamic routing would ease congestion. Parking would cease to be a hassle where the location of empty bays is already known or passengers are dropped off before parking. However, the rise of automation will put pressure on transport professionals, whose valuable skills should be improved with the use of technology, not redundant. Above all, the success of CAVs depends on robust telecommunications networks where the loss of network connection could have serious consequences.

In summary, the use of emerging CAV technologies could resolve a number of issues that have proven challenging. The benefits are there to be reaped if full deployment and network integration are preceded by careful planning and sufficient investment.

Note: This article represents the first one in the series dedicated to autonomous driving technology, with the next article in the series looking more closely at technologies available in the short, medium and long term.

[1] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-25/every-road-death-in-australia-since-1989/9353794
[2] Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (2015), Information Sheet 74: Traffic and congestion cost trends for Australian capital cities.
[3] Kate Rosier & Myfanwy McDonald (2011), The relationship between transport and disadvantage in Australia.
[4] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018), Dementia: Overview, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/health-conditions-disability-deaths/dementia/overview
[5] Transport for NSW (2018), Problem Statement: Network optimisation with connected and automated vehicles.
[6] https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/transport-fact-sheet/

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