Planning for cities is a complex topic. There are lots of objectives that we are trying to satisfy and ultimately, transport is just one of many issues we need to solve for our cities.
Transport is significant, it tends to cost a lot of money, it’s high impact (on people), but we know we can achieve more sustainable cities if we get transport right.
When thinking about transport we need to remember, it’s a derived demand, people ‘transport’ to achieve an end. We need to understand what is driving those needs for transport, be that people getting from point a to point b, or freight movements and so on.
The trend towards autonomous cars has been a focus for some time now. It is replete with opportunity … what they might offer and what they might achieve.
We are seeing major reductions in the cost of lithium-ion batter packs, while at the same time we are seeing predictions for massive increases in demand for EV battery power (see image 1).
There’s been a lot of talk about how the smart vehicle will allow us to sit in a vehicle while we travel, but not devote time to steering the vehicle. Instead we can read, check emails, have meetings … not be fully focussed on driving.
We know that as autonomous vehicles start to take up a significant position in the vehicle fleet, the costs of travel will come down and the number of vehicles on the road may come down, but the number if trips those vehicle make will go up… with fewer vehicles making more trips, one car will be serving many masters.
There is no doubt that the growth in demand for this type of transport will be very significant.
Although there are many trials occurring around autonomous vehicles (Singapore’s autonomous buses and autonomous taxi trial), they are still experiments.
Professor Ann Williamson from the University of New South Wales recently said that this testing was proceeding too quickly as the technology is at present too unsophisticated to be safe.
"Our technology is too unsophisticated — the sensors that are being used in many of the vehicles just aren't quite good enough to allow the vehicle to take complete control," she said.
The reality is that there will always be a mixture of driverless and the cars we have today, what is known as ‘mixed traffic’. And the reality is, where we have that, there may be significant challenges.
We recently saw the news of a Tesla S driver who died after his car hit a truck when on autopilot. This has prompted a philosophical debate around the Trolley problem: Who should the driverless car save: pedestrians/cyclists or the passengers in that car?
The trolley problem is a classic thought experiment in ethics, which asks you to imagine a trolley headed toward a track that five people are bound to. If you pull a lever, you can redirect the trolley to another track, where only one person is bound. Do you do nothing at all and watch five people die? Or pull the lever, change fate and be personally responsible for the death of one person?
The Amy Gillett Foundation's Rod Katz predicted a moral hazard in which an autonomous vehicle was programmed to protect the passenger in the vehicle, even if it meant hitting a pedestrian or cyclist on the road.
"It could be fantastic but there are also real risks there," he said. "That's my concern, that the risks are not going to get picked up in the excitement."
And so the debate continues. There IS a lot of opportunity when it comes to autonomous vehicles, many interesting legislative challenges ahead and much work to be done to achieve the transport advantages of a smarter city.
This is an excerpt from my recent presentation at the iCities World Class CBD’s conference, held in Melbourne on 24-25 October.