Self-driving vehicles = sustainable mobility?

Spoiler alert : the answer is yes, but the back story needs some explanation.

Since our rural ancestors flocked from the countryside to towns during the industrial revolution, technology has driven an alternating ebb and flow of population in and out of cities. As towns reached capacity trains and buses enabled suburbs to flourish, followed by widescale adoption of cars and the commuter culture began radiating ever more widely. However, the concept of independence offered by today’s road-based mobility solutions does not translate into reality for residents of towns and cities with overcrowded streets and for rural communities where car ownership has become the only viable option for travel.

Today there are 40 million driving licence holders in the UK and 34 million cars registered. We’re nearly at 1:1 and our streets, which were never planned with this level of vehicle ownership in mind, reflect that. Look at a picture of your road from just 40 years ago and see how few cars there were then compared with the view now. Today we’re in daily conflict with our neighbours for the space nearest our house or flattening our front gardens for parking. And there are 25 million residents in the UK who don’t have a driving licence and are therefore either unwilling or unable to drive themselves.

In 1994, the entrepreneur John Elkington coined the phrase Triple Bottom Line to frame sustainability in three vectors; social, economic and environmental and it provides a useful way to explore the benefits of driverless technology.

The social benefits start by providing access to mobility for all, not just those with a driving licence. As the demographics of society change, the ageing population will be able to remain independent for longer. Today’s drivers will become tomorrow’s passengers with the time previously spent operating controls now available for other activities on the journey. The immense human and social costs associated with vehicle accidents can also be reduced because connected and autonomous vehicles not affected by fatigue, distraction or emotional response to other traffic situations. Of all the benefits which CAVs offer, safety may well provide the most significant, enduring and important outcome.

Economically the emerging market will provide opportunities for employment in all areas, from the development and supply of technology estimated to be £2.7 billion for the UK by 2035 through to the supply and distribution of vehicles of forecasted at £28 billion for the UK In the same timeframe. New business models are being developed from the supply of mobility as a service (MaaS) through to journey time activities from entertainment through to commerce.

Environmentally the technology which powers the vehicle will be cleaner and more fuel efficient than today. The recent Future of Technology debate organised by the Advanced Propulsion Centre provided a forum to explore the next generation of technology. Connected vehicles interact with each other and the environment around them to optimise the road space, minimise the inefficiency of stop-start congestion and work together to reduce energy use by balancing traffic flow.

As the human cycle of movement in and out of urban environments turns again, self-driving vehicle technology can answer the most challenging societal questions around mobility.

  • The independence of personal mobility can be achieved through the optimisation of vehicles rather than simply increasing the number available.
  • The ability for people, goods and services to move safely and freely can be enabled through connected and autonomous vehicles working in collaboration with smart city infrastructure and regulation.
  • Time, perhaps the most precious of all commodities, can now be used for activities other than driving enabling a less stressful human experience.

The long answer to the short question is that ‘Yes, CAV technology offers sustainable mobility across all three areas’. The next question we need to ask is ‘how soon can we enjoy the benefits’?

this post was first published by Al Clarke on 30 March 2018 on the Meridian Mobility Technology website 


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