The future: Driverless cars and no traffic lights

OPINION: New Zealand’s first driverless vehicle trial to start in Christchurch is a view into the future when robotic cars will be common in our cities, writes transport expert Martin Matthews.

Over the coming decades autonomous vehicles will fundamentally alter how people travel, and cities work. We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift that will play out over the next 30 years. There are many sceptics who believe it will be a long time before these vehicles become common place in our cities. I think they are wrong. These vehicles and the associated changes will occur much faster, and go much further, than most of us can currently imagine. A great deal of change can happen in just 30 years. It’s happened before as I think of the changes that happened during the life of my grandmother. She was born in Cust, North Canterbury, in 1894. Four years later the first motor vehicles came to New Zealand. By the early 1900’s, as a young girl she would have sometimes seen a motor vehicle, but it would have been a rare and wondrous thing. She could not have imagined then that by 1927 she would own a Chrysler – which incidentally I now own with my brother. n the space of just 30 years, motor vehicles had gone from being the source of curious wonder, to being owned and used in daily life by ordinary families. In the early 1920s these vehicles changed the way they led their lives, worked and travelled. The same sort of transformation is about to occur again.

The effect of autonomous vehicles and the technologies that will connect them to other vehicles and systems will see future generations choosing to buy their mobility as a service, rather than own vehicles like most us do today. This is because it simply won’t make sense to own a car. People will buy what they want, when they want it. They will have greater choice, it will be more convenient, and it will be cheaper. We will buy mobility services just like we buy cell phone services today. Some will buy an agreed level of service for a period. Others may pay as they go. Some people think these changes will see more vehicles on the roads, making congestion in big cities worse. They argue that because older and younger people will be able to travel independently it will result in more vehicles on the roads. This is possible, but I think emerging patterns already evident in other parts of the world show future generations will be more willing to share their rides than we currently do.These changes will transform how our cities work. They could solve congestion and the need for more road space and parking. Connected and autonomous vehicles will drive closer together reducing the space needed between them. Four lanes will be possible where we currently have three. They will work out the best routes and speeds for every user. Traffic lights will become museum artefacts as the vehicles will manage intersections. They won’t need parking either. Public transport will also be impacted by these changes. Mass transit will still be needed in big cities to move large numbers of people to some destinations. But the ability to buy and share mobility with others will be more cost effective and convenient for people than traditional public transport services in many circumstances.

The OECD think tank on transport has estimated that, the trends I have described would mean a mid-sized European city would only need a vehicle fleet that is 10% of the current one. This will also dramatically reduce total emissions because we will need fewer vehicles and because they are likely to be electric.  Image Credit.