The evolution of transport

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit is a writer and consultant on public transport planning. He’s beginning to grapple with the implications of driverless cars. In response to a series by Richard Gilbert, he notes the importance of evolution in determining the likely future state of our transport systems:

This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode. Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.

Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved. In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change. As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.

It’s an excellent point; like Walker, I’m skeptical of the short-term viability of narrow-track vehicles, let alone narrow-track vehicles that involve squeezing three lanes into where two presently go.

But the evolutionary argument is not an argument against the likelihood of a future where autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous. To the contrary – it’s one of the strongest arguments for their prevalence, as very little needs to happen. The technology can be introduced gradually, offering incremental safety and convenience improvements in various driving situations. After the world gets comfortable with that, and notes the reduction in accidents as a result, in some situations fully autonomous driving will be permitted, and probably made compulsory some time after that. Then, when automatic operation is legal in enough places, Zipcar and/or its competitors will start using them, making their service more attractive and cheaper (because they get better utiliztion from their vehicle fleet). When this becomes popular enough, companies start optimizing their vehicle designs for autonomous shared operation.

The particulars will vary, and the exact timelines are anyone’s guess. But by 2040 or so, it’s hard to imagine that manual driving will be anything other than a hobby.

The question of how autonomous vehicles and public transport will interact is a fascinating area for speculation, but it’s still too early to say how it will all pan out. My guess is that there will still be a role for shared larger vehicles – be they trains or buses – at peak times, on heavily-used routes, and over longer distances. But I simply don’t know yet, and I don’t think anybody does.

It’s worth dealing with one more point, raised by Walker among others – that autonomous vehicles are supposedly doomed by liability issues.

By the time fully autonomous operation becomes common, it’s likely that most of the bugs will have been ironed out, and accident rates will be very low, particularly in comparison to the costs caused by human drivers making mistakes. Beyond that, we have a legal and insurance system that deals with sorting out liability between parties when accidents occur. Sometimes when a plane crashes, it’s the fault of pilots or airline maintenance. Sometimes it’s the fault of manufacturer design flaws – including software flaws, by the way. And sometimes it’s just bad luck. And, funnily enough, we still manage to fly planes.

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7 Responses to The evolution of transport

  1. Alan Davies says:

    I think the so-called “evolutionary” argument applies in a number of contexts. For example, the environmental benefits of transit are usually argued in the context of a fully developed system. But other than in some limited markets like CBD work travel, transit competes with cars and has to win share against this strong (and adaptable) competitor. That will take time – at present, transit’s emissions advantage over cars is modest.

    Regarding autonomous vehicles, there’re some parallels with cars when they were first introduced. Back circa 1890, it wasn’t obvious they would succeed on the scale they ultimately did – too expensive to buy and operate for all other than the filthy-rich, limited supporting infrastructure such as fuel stations and all-weather roads, very unreliable mechanically, difficult to control and operate, unsafe for occupants, a serious threat to pedestrians and horses, and not even any faster on crowded city streets.

    If autonomous vehicles offer a compelling proposition, they’ll likely be successful. The timetable to address the various legal, social and technical issues is the big unknown.

  2. BilB says:

    There was a very interesting article on innovation and uptake in different fields on the week end. This pointed to the lightspeed pace of functional growth of computers and particularly smartphones and apps, then made a comparison to other areas of human affairs. It is a very valid point that we willingly accept change were it improves our lives and that uptake is relatively instantaneous where there are not interceders who can block that development and uptake.

    With autonomous driving there is the safety proving aspect, and the evolutionary argument is totally valid. For autonomous driving that evolution is well under way. In aviation autonomous flight has been in operation in aircraft for at least a decade. In cars autonomous modules are already common. Cruise control was the first, and now cruise control with interactive speed management is in use on higher end vehicles, and now autonomous parking control is also already in use in a number of vehicle brands. These are all building blocks of that evolution towards continuous co control of automobiles. Then there will be a longish proving period where somewhere along the path high end vehicles will attempt full autonomous control, park to park.

    Narrow track vehicles have been in common use for at least 50 years and fill a niche in Italy and Asia.

    The new generation of narrow track vehicles will take a long time to achieve a strong presence, but they will have a solid uptake. The prospect of re-laning to take maximum advantage is unlikely, mainly because cargo hauling is modular, successful, and internationally uniform. However narrow track vehicles do offer opportunities in local subdivision planning for affordable accommodation, if bureaucrats will get out of the way that is.

    The narrow track vehicle that I am keen to utilise is the VW XL1. This started out as a tandem seating concept but quickly changed to an offset seating formula (which I have been taunting my daughters is the perfect dating car). This very significant design change shows that the VW design team is reacting to consumer resistance to the tandem seating (motor bike) arrangement particularly from the leg space comfort perspective, a very good sign that uptake will be strong. I am keen on this vehicle as it offers 100 klm per litre (diesel) and highway speeds with fully enclosed comfort. I am currently doing a 170 klm commute to our North Sydney office which costs $30 per day in a family car. In the XL1 this will be $3 per day, and with autonomous control, as this commute is 95% freeway, I will be able to attend to correspondence and other matters in route. Apart from the personal cost savings, the environmental impact improvement will in time be a primary attractant for this vehicle and its clones, All that I will need next is a supplier of palm oil bio diesel and I can be a very green, very comfortable, and a very efficient (with autonomous control) commuter.

    The advantage for road spacing is that narrow tracks will be able to fill 2 vehicles to a lane in slow traffic and at lights, significantly improving intersection efficiency. In tight parking these vehicles should be able to fit 3 to 2 current narrow parking spaces while providing more door opening space for the current inefficient vehicles.

    I can live 90% of my life utilising a narrow track vehicle, The other very important 10%, family travel of 3 or more people with or without lugage, requires larger vehicles, particularly if hauling loads is required (trailers caravans etc). So I do not see any changes to the open road as we know it. But I do predict a reshaping of road spacing in the near home precinct more along the lines of the Old European formula. But that is another topic all together.

    • I just don’t see how that theoretical road spacing advantage can actually be utilized, because it requires the narrow track vehicles to be slotted in next to each other. Bicycles and motorcycles can “lane split” to weave their way through stopped traffic, but you can’t do that with a narrow track vehicle.

      I could be wrong, though!

      • BilB says:

        Your reservation is warranted, the advantage is marginal for vehicles of the XL1 class. Narrow track vehicles generally refer to the 3 wheelers and the “leaners” or “carvers”. Motor bikes generally ride in a staggered formation which provides for closer proximity riding and most certainly more compact than the equivalent number of cars. Take note the next time a cohort of Ulyses bikers ride past. Narrow track vehicles have the same advantage, but most certainly cannot weave as you rightly point out. The primary advantage to my thinking is one of fuel saving, with CO2 emissions reduction with narrow tracks, and the the scope for a rethink of transport and road space in high density affordable accomodation. That will be a difficult argument to win as our current town planning seems to require the ability to park a semi trailer at the average suburban curbside.

  3. BilB says:

    I was just discussing these issues with my wife who is normally marginally interested in technology. But the prospect of spending $6000 per year just for fuel to commute if I had to do the long commute regularly instantly becomes a matter of concern. “So show me this car” she said. “It looks good from the front, but a bit weird from the back”. Then I was explaining the advantages of autonomous control and what it means from a comuter comfort point of view. Her reaction is completely positive as everyone is over the tyranny of driving. Then, out of the blue after a discussion on the impact to public transport, she said

    “Hey. you could have cabs that pull up without drivers and take you anywhere you want to go!”

    I think that given a clear run, free from interceding bureaucrats, we could have a transport revolution on our hands in a relatively short period. Here’s hoping.

    The XL1 is slated for production this year but for a limited European market at first.

  4. My prediction: driverless cars will be the technology that everyone will sit around in 20-30 years time and say “how on earth did we live without…”. As a cyclist often frustrated with the cocoon (and sometimes actively hostile) mentality of many human drivers, it can’t come soon enough!

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