The Five Per-Cent Transport Solution

Here’s a question for you: what costs you at least $15,000 to buy (and probably more) and is only used for its intended purpose five per cent of the time? The answer is probably sitting in your driveway, garage or maybe the car park at work right now. That’s right, it’s your car, and ninety five per cent of the time it’s just sitting there parked, going nowhere. That’s the typical figure of car use according to University of California Los Angeles economist professor Alan Shoup. Shoup has dedicated much of his professional life to studying the economics of parking and land use. "Most people in transportation focus on the five per cent of the time that cars are moving. But the average car is parked 95 per cent of the time. I think there's a lot to learn to learn from that 95 per cent,” Shoup said. That figure of 95 per cent is remarkably consistent throughout the world, however it’s calculated, and it’s stimulated a lot of thinking among urban planners and transport planners alike. If the coming revolution in self-driving cars lives up to its promise all that may be about to change. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that within a generation cars will have attained Level 4 Autonomy – full self-driving artificial intelligence for cars.

Pay as you drive

When that happens you may not be heading to your garage to jump in your car. You may instead be using an app on your smartphone to summons a car that will arrive at your home within minutes to take you to your destination. You won’t own the car, though you may jointly lease it with others, and you’ll most likely be paying to use it by the kilometre. If that all sounds a little pie-in-the-sky to you then General Motors, for one, begs to differ. It’s already working with transportation network company Lyft on developing an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the US.

Goodbye parking

Such a pattern of vehicle use promises to radically reduce the need for car parking and in doing so change the face of our homes and our cities. What self-driving cars will do for traffic congestion, however, is an open question at this stage. While shared autonomous cars may reduce the number of vehicles owned by the public it may do nothing to reduce the volume of traffic on the roads. We’ll simply be using less cars more often.

Increased traffic congestion

Professor Koen Franken of Utrecht University in the Netherlands thinks autonomous cars may actually tempt people to spend longer in their cars if they can work and travel at the same time. That will make traffic congestion even worse. Another scenario is people travelling to work in their individually owned autonomous vehicle, then sending it home to pick them up later. This too would greatly increase congestion. That may be unlikely, however, thanks to the increasing demand for public transport in traffic-congested cities. In Australia traffic congestion is now a major issue from Sydney to Perth. Even Hobart is experiencing lengthening peak hour traffic congestion with delays in getting to work.

Integrating public transport

Politicians of all persuasions are now getting excited about urban rail and light rail systems. With that in mind it’s quite possible we’ll see a greater integration of self-driving cars with public transport – in particular rail. On the face of it a self-driving car taking you to the nearest train station when you want to get there, rather than when the bus timetable says you should go, seems like a promising transport solution for suburban Australia. At this stage it’s way too early to say how self-driving cars will impact on our lives and our cities, but it’s likely to be profound. Rapid technological change has a tendency to catch governments unaware and scrambling to respond – just witness the rise of Uber for example. The impact of self-driving cars may be uncertain but it will certainly be interesting.

The four levels of automation

Transport Solution

Although many cars today claim to be fully autonomous vehicles, there are in fact four different levels of automation of cars. It is expected that by 2050 level four autonomous vehicles will be the primary means of transport on our roads.

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