Is driverless car technology colliding with public transport?

Driverless car technology in Australia is no longer a gimmick, in fact, the conversation is well and truly under way. But is it more than just cars? Are we headed towards autonomous vehicle technology for mass transit? Stephen Taylor, our City Executive, discusses.

"It seems blatantly obvious to most, not only are our roads are clogged by cars, but they are likely to remain so for years to come".

I recently attended the NSW Government’s Smart Cities Summit and was pleased to be part of the discussion on how driverless car technology will be the solution for Sydney’s congested roads. Well maybe.

Now don’t get me wrong - I am excited about the potential of autonomous vehicles and the impact they could have on our sclerotic traffic. We know that robotics cars will mean far more efficient use of our roads, faster travel times, less accidents and, quite possibly, through more passengers per car. 

But, I'm just as convinced robotic cars won’t make much of a dent on traffic congestion if we don’t start thinking more broadly and creatively about autonomous vehicle technology. For a start, there’s around 180,000 commuter trips made each day during morning peak hour into Sydney’s CBD , with roughly 25,000 of people travelling by car, another 145,000 via public transport and approximately 11,000 who are walking in or on bikes. Future projections suggest that by 2031 there’ll be 230,000 trips made into Sydney city during peak hour.

Currently, it’s estimated that nearly 90% of our roads are filled with cars. Yet, even with optimistic scenarios of a 25% autonomous vehicle usage by 2031, this usage won’t address such a huge imbalance. In fact, it seems blatantly obvious to most, not only are our roads are clogged by cars, but that they are likely to remain that way for many years to come.

With Sydney expecting to add another million people over the next decade due to increased urbanization, the city’s density will mean that the competition for roads as well as public and green space will be intense. Clearly we need to reclaim our public realm for our cities to function and prosper

Though, autonomous vehicle innovation is not only about cars. Driverless car technology has also been generating new approaches to public transport. In fact, London has already announced that it is trialling ‘driverless pod’ transportation on its roads in order to gauge both public acceptance and interest.

One of the biggest barriers to the use of autonomous vehicle technology and public transport is the connection between our home and form of transit – it’s that first mile.

So, if we take a step back and start thinking on a larger scale, should Sydney have a ‘hub network’ for public transport? This could act as a focal point to ‘pool’ commuters for a ‘turn up and go’ basis. Our existing rail network, as well as our soon to be established metro system, could then be supplemented with fleets of autonomous buses making the commute into Sydney’s CBD each day. This network could work through the ‘turn up and go’ basis, or perhaps we could have an even smarter more coordinated system, depending on the demand of the destination. The passenger could then be delivered to these hubs from their home via smaller autonomous vehicles, helping to solve any ‘last mile’ issues.

With this more efficient approach to public transport and mass transit in general, we would need less road space which we could then reclaim for better use. Public transport is already an efficient form of urban transport and combined with autonomous vehicle technology we could make it even better. Sure sounds like a smart future to me.

Stephen Taylor

Australian Cities Director +61 2 8907 9084 Ask me a question
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