Autonomous vehicles and a new future of transport

by Feb 28, 2017Article

Are we speeding towards a future without privately-owned cars? There are compelling reasons to think that a combination of urbanisation, shifting cultural priorities and of course rapid technological change are set to radically reshape our concept of transport. In this article we explore the factors, and consider what transport providers and technology suppliers must do to prepare.

Factor 1: Increasing urbanisation

Society is changing: as urbanisation increases, our cities have never been more congested; air pollution is a rising concern; and space has never been scarcer. We are already hearing that Singapore is planning to remove car parks to make room for more effective public spaces; others will doubtless follow. After all, we simply cannot afford to allocate precious space to vehicles that sit idle 96% of the time

In the coming years privately-owned cars will become less fundamental to our transport infrastructure. Already their appeal is reducing, largely due to increases in cost (parking, congestion charges) and inconvenience (congestion). Staggeringly, it is estimated that UK drivers spend 106 days of their lives searching for parking spaces – and of course yet more stuck in traffic.

As Guardian writer Steven Moss eloquently comments: “Cars were invented as agents of freedom, but to drive (and, worse, to have to park) one in a city is tantamount to punishment.”

Factor 2: The youth of today (and tomorrow)

We already know that younger generations aren’t wedded to their vehicles in the same way as their parents. Indeed, Millennials value smartphones more than private cars. This is a significant driver towards the concept of ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS), according to one detailed Guardian article.

Furthermore, Zipcar’s annual “Millennial Survey” actually suggests that 45% of Millennials have made a conscious effort to reduce how much they drive in favour of other modes of transportation. Meanwhile, Jason Torrance, Policy Director at sustainable transport group Sustrans, says: “We’re at a stage now in history where people, especially young people, want to have the choice whether to drive or not to drive […] the appetite is there for alternatives to the car.”

Factor 3: Autonomous vehicles

We already know that many passengers don’t especially care what form of transport they take: APTA report that 70% of Millennials willingly use multiple travel forms several times a week. And while we in the industry rightly focus attention on the very different  challenges of delivering fixed and demand response services, the reality is that passengers simply demand mobility of whichever form suits them. Critically, that form will be driven by a multitude of factors, from the time and day, weather, urgency, cost, travel congestion and type of travel (business or leisure).

Already we are starting to see coming together of different transport modes under the umbrella of mobility; this trend is likely to increase dramatically with the onset of autonomous vehicles. In recent years there has been much talk of organisations such as Uber supplementing traditional fixed route services and thereby reducing reliance on private vehicles. But perhaps it is more likely that we will see autonomous vehicles start to fulfil the perennial ‘first mile/last mile’ issue, thereby heralding a new age of public transport adoption.

Autonomous vehicles could be as little as 10 years away – and if that sounds ambitious, consider that the first iPhone was launched as recently as 2007. A lot can change in technology in 10 years. 
Consider also the fact that autonomous vehicles are already here to some degree.

We recently experienced a ride on an autonomous shuttle bus at PostBus in Sion, Switzerland. The highly impressive pilot consists of two vehicles – following a predefined 1.5km tour route – that automatically stop when confronted with unexpected obstacles or pedestrians, and deal with elements such as narrow streets with remarkable ease.

Autonomous vehicle technology is real and will only improve. And just as importantly, cultural acceptance appears to be no barrier: feedback from Sion indicates that passengers feel safe from their first moment on board.

If the public are ready and the technology is in place then there seems little to stand in its way.

A future vision

Some view autonomous vehicles as a threat to public transport. While they could undoubtedly disrupt the industry – and especially slow moving organisations – there is of course also huge potential here.

What if we could harness the power of autonomous vehicles and weave them in to a better transport model? Could we work together to deliver affordable freedom of mobility for all in society, while simultaneously reducing pollution and congestion; and ensuring our cities have more green spaces for our children to play in?

In short, could autonomous vehicles be the key to not only better transport, but to better lives? Now that’s a road we want to travel. We’re here for the journey.

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