There are clear indications that fully electric cars are coming, and driverless cars are on the way. Driverless electric vehicles (DEV) are in sight. They may take over from combustion engine vehicles in the next few decades. It is worth envisaging the likely situation in advance.
It is widely assumed that low cost, driverless, electric, 4 seater vehicles or buses will solve the public transport issues of Australian cities grown to 8m. This is doubtful. There are legal, insurance, technical and regulatory issues to be resolved first.
There are behavioural and cost issues too. At present, privately owned cars are in effect extensions of the owners’ home and personality. Possession means personal care. Small, anonymous, driverless, public vehicles offering passenger privacy will not receive the same careful treatment.
Idle DEVs must be mobile and located close to passenger pick-up point to minimise waiting. They will keep circulating slowly to conserve battery charge in and out of cities on all freeways and up and down all highways, 24/7, unparked. Company mass vehicle owners will demand at least three freeways to circle around CBDs, around middle and around outer city suburbs centred on the CBDs for quick pick-up.
If an owner of these vehicles cannot keep pick-up time short, less than a taxi, it may lose the fare to another company. This would be like a ‘stock-out’ or loss of business for a manufacturing firm. Empty DEVs are expensive to own and run. Competition would centre on the right number of units in the right locations for the most rapid response to calls.
Vehicles will be out of service for 1 hour per week for cleaning. A million vehicles would mean 15,547 would be scheduled for cleaning every hour, 24/7. Given 20 minutes in, 20 minutes out and 20 minutes cleaning, a facility to park and process 5,000 units would be needed; a large expensive requirement.
When vehicles are rejected, and a clean replacement ordered by annoyed passengers because they arrived with vomit, mess, needles, graffiti or damage, another facility is needed to immediately and thoroughly clean these vehicles. Perhaps up to 1% may be affected and take up to an hour to clean. This would need a facility to park and process a peak of 10,000 vehicles a day, 24/7, assuming there are 1m vehicles. Inevitably, passengers would become the inspectors. Some form of compensation, like a free ride on the replacement vehicle, would be necessary for their inconvenience.
It is intended that none of the vehicles would ever be garaged, or parked. They would be in continuous motion on free-ways and high-ways, 24/7. This may be expensive in terms of electricity cost and road-use tax. No doubt, off-peak vehicles, which would be around half the total number, could be parked, but where? Probably, they would be parked bumper to bumper in suburban streets near freeway on-ramps, in quiet streets next to high-ways and maybe supermarket carparks ready for a quick start for the next morning peak demand. This would be annoying to residents and property owners who may complain of depressed property values. They may have to be compensated, which adds to overall costs.
The vehicles are constantly moving. They are in effect “parked” waiting to be called on freeways and highways at slow speed to save on their battery charge, which would cause great congestion. Most cars today are parked/garaged 90% of the time. There is still major congestion, even in “off-peak”. After full transition from cars to DEVs, maybe 2 to 3 million DEVs with a capacity of 4 at an average overall occupancy utilisation of less than 2, allowing for empty vehicles, would be required to constantly circulate a city of 8m people at peak times, resulting in worse congestion, connectivity and liveability than now.
A new road-use tax on high road-use driverless electric vehicles to replace the petrol tax lost on combustion engine cars displaced by DEVs needed to pay for roads and freeways may make them higher cost. The lightly constructed ‘public transport’ DEVs constantly in motion and subject to abuse may require a high depreciation charge in costing, adding to running cost and the price of travel.
New “public transport”
The Australian authorities appear to rely on cheap driverless vehicles as mass ‘public transport’ to move people to work and around locally where there is no government public transport, particularly in middle and outer suburbs. Four seater electric autonomous buses are envisaged for ride-sharing to and from work. They are expected to cut road congestion as the population doubles. The reverse is more unlikely
There are customer behavioural issues. Many people would be reluctant to share with three strangers. Mothers would not send their children to school with strangers. People would be anxious about sharing with drunks, molesters, gang members and paedophiles. They would not want a vehicle to turn up with vomit, mess or graffiti. Women alone may feel reluctant to share with unknown passengers. Women may prefer single hire to multiple, unless they share with other women and/or known men.
There are limits to the time people will wait for pick-up. Some Melbourne taxi companies today do not operate over Saturday lunch-time because congestion now is so great that they cannot pick-up in an acceptable time. Passengers may not be willing to wait for 3 other separate people sharing to be picked-up or set-down before them at each journey end by a bus. They may retain their cars for convenience.
Highly trained and experienced district nurses who are constantly driving and know the city road conditions are ‘canaries in the mine’. They complain about present road congestion and the long time it takes them between patients. Many are stressed by driving in congestion and time spent in cars. They leave for other jobs. The situation is likely to worsen as the population ages and congestion increases.
Bus owners’ interests
Electric autonomous vehicles will be owned by large companies, much larger and owning many more vehicles than the total of taxi companies and Uber today. They will be very powerful. They probably will press hard for or demand that State Governments build new freeways: an inner circle around the CBD, a middle city circle and an outer circle with special lanes for more than expected of their empty vehicles to circulate around the city slowly near their customers’ main locations in morning and evening peak-hours waiting to pick-up quickly. They will cycle idle units into and out of the city on all existing freeways. They will want many battery charging centres all along the freeways and high-ways for lengthy recharging, connected and disconnected to the charger by hand, while providing no customers for convenience store sales. The cost of manning so many charging centres would be high. They will not garage their empty vehicles, but keep them circulating all the time. They will park some off-peak in neighbourhood streets near freeway on-ramps, upsetting property owners.
The average number of passengers carried per bus, excluding those idle, may be under 2 rather than the capacity of 4. They need to be in the right place at the right time for quick pick-up. Experience and big data will tell where the main right places are, but they will become highly congested by extra waiting buses for double the population. So many DEVs are likely to cause large indirect costs of new freeways and not reduce congestion as hoped. Cost of roads would be passed on to companies and passengers.
There would be great congestion at evening rush hour pick-up in the scarce space in CBD streets for the many waiting passengers in the same or nearby locations wanting to get home. They may have difficulty in identifying their vehicle out of the many in the rush and congestion. Groups engaged in ride sharing would have to be punctual in the rush hour to avoid holding-up their friends and the queue. It would not be like waiting for a train at a station to carry the many on the same route.
Occupied vehicles would drive amongst the empty units travelling slowly on freeways waiting for a call and private cars still operating at high speeds. Extra lanes on freeways and highways may be needed for the idle vehicles to reduce some of the congestion. Certainly, driverless vehicles, whether occupied or empty, would travel closer safely, but idle have to make-way for occupied, which takes up road space.
There are serious concerns with DEVs, such as hacking their controls that cause accidents or kidnap. Hackers have stolen 57million peoples’ private details from Uber already. Passengers are vulnerable as they board the vehicle at pick-up to assault, robbery and car-jack. They are not protected by a driver who is in control of the vehicle, especially in the evening rush hour or at supermarkets.
DEVs are anticipated to be low cost means of ‘public transport’ and to largely replace cars in cities during the next 4-5 decades, when the Australian population is projected to double. The cost may not be as low as expected. Many units well located would be required to provide a competitively quick pick-up time. A large proportion would be idle, waiting to be called. The ratio of occupied to empty vehicles and location are crucial to owners’ profitability. The vehicles may be low cost to manufacture, and have low maintenance, but operating cost may be high to hold them in surplus, empty waiting to be called. Depreciation may be high for ‘public transport’ vehicles constantly on the move. Electricity costs may be competitive, but high road-use taxes for these high road-use vehicles may be large to cover road maintenance and extra freeway and highway construction that governments will recover from vehicle-owners. Congestion charges may add to operating cost and price. Regular cleaning and special cleaning costs may be high per unit. Insurance has not yet been settled, but may be high until experience is gained about risk and the reliability of controlling software. Compensation costs for dirty unit and to residents and property owners affected by parking may be considerable. These tangible costs add up.
The intangible cost of DEVs may be the reluctance of people to continue to commute into city CBDs because of the stresses and cost of travel, as was found in China. They may find jobs closer to home in suburban hubs unconnected by public transport, other than DEVs and their concomitant congestion. This would have a negative effect on innovation, a large hidden cost of an unintended consequence.
No doubt, DEVs would be a convenient, flexible, maybe lower cost than cars, and private addition to ‘public transport’ in the absence of a London-like transport system (still with serious congestion, low world liveability ranking of 53 and a population of 8m living in smaller dwellings). They are more environmentally friendly than cars. Their advantages are offset by the great disadvantages of the huge cost of increased congestion and great loss of liveability as Sydney and Melbourne populations double.