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Government action key to a desirable driverless car future

image: Daria Kirpach
image: Daria Kirpach

Two new reports from the City of Melbourne and Sustainable Business Australia have called for stronger government intervention into an impending future of autonomous vehicles to protect against negative outcomes including increased congestion, decreased public health and even a world where cars take the long route to keep us watching in-car advertisements.

The City of Melbourne’s Emerging Technologies discussion paper, released on Wednesday as part of the city’s Transport Strategy refresh, presents two stark scenarios of our cities’ driverless car futures. One will emerge due to government inertia and unfettered private competition; the other from governments setting a clear regulatory framework that puts people’s health and amenity at the centre.

No prizes for guessing which scenario sees the movement of people prioritised over the movement of vehicles, and which one leads to the decline of public transport and pedestrian space.

The key to seeing more opportunities and less issues, the council’s transport portfolio chair Nicolas Frances Gilleysaid, was making sure driverless cars were well integrated with the public transport system.

“Driverless cars circulating the central city, delivery drones flying overhead while their robot counterparts zoom past along footpaths – this kind of future isn’t hard to imagine,” he said.

“In this future, if people choose to abandon public transport to get to work in a driverless car, which then circulates the city empty, our problems with congestion will only get worse.”

He said this had already been seem with the emergence of “rideshare” technology. For example, in New York half of rideshare trips would have previously been made by walking, cycling or public transport.

“Now these people are using Uber and other apps to get around, the congestion from which reduces urban amenity, air quality, health outcomes and social interaction.”

Scenario 1: Government action and private sector cooperation

Scenario 2: Government inertia and aggressive private sector competition

Other issues included the possibility of operators using advertising to cut costs. If not properly regulated it could lead to “providers trying to capture more of passenger’s time and attention, rather than providing efficient transport”, the paper warned.

Melbourne is looking to Finland as a potential model to overcome some of the drawbacks.

The country is implementing a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platform, which brings together access to public transport, car share, rideshare and bike share for a monthly subscription fee.

“MaaS regulatory reform could enable better integration of a growing number of mobility services. Leadership from government, working closely with service providers, is required for this to be achieved,” the paper said.

The paper puts forward suggestions and ideas it is currently looking for feedbackon, including that:

  • Empty driverless cars pay a fee to use the road, preventing increased congestion
  • Driverless cars are regulated to move out of the way for buses and trams
  • Smart sensors halve time buses and trams spend waiting for cars at traffic lights
  • Deliveries are made by robots on the ground and in the air, reducing congestion
  • For a monthly fee, people can access public transport, ride hailing, bike and car share via an app

SBA report backs up need for government intervention and MaaS

Sustainable Business Australia also entered the future mobility fray late last month, with its Transporting the Future report, which aims to provide a “business perspective” on future mobility, which it sees as being “cheap, door to door, personalised and on demand”.

The report is based on research by SBA as part of its three-year Sustainable Mobility Project, which is chaired by NRMA, with other contributing businesses including AGL, Downer, Energetics, Jacobs and IAG.

The report highlights the strong role business has in ensuring the benefits of driverless vehicles are realised.

“Business has a role in sustainable mobility by demonstrating that it cannot only offer environmentally compatible vehicles and innovative mobility concepts and infrastructure to support sustainable mobility, but it can take a collaborative, holistic approach to support our cities, precincts and public transport infrastructure in setting and achieving business goals in relation to improving sustainable mobility,” SBA chief executive Andrew Petersen said.

But the report also said a “considered policy direction” was needed from governments so as not to exacerbate existing social and environmental impacts, especially as “businesses often are not motivated to change the status quo without involvement from public authorities”.

“A sustainable transport future for Australia requires a deliberative and ambitious shift from the status quo along a defined policy agenda,” the report said.

“A transport system dominated by private autonomous travel could increase journeys and vehicles on the road, which would result in Australia not realising the full potential this technology could offer. By contrast, a shared subscription service would effectively be private mobility on demand and this could significantly reduce congestion by having fewer vehicles on the road.”

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