Imagine fast, efficient transport for all; denser, more liveable cities that largely do away with the need for car parking – in buildings and on the street; greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions; public, private and active transport integrating seamlessly.

Lauren Isaac

Now imagine a glut of privately owned driverless vehicles crowding roads; the expansive, remotely located car parks needed to house these vehicles when not being used; cities sprawling off into the distance as travel becomes faster; public transport diminishing and the less well-off left stranded; modes of transport remaining disconnected; and increasing health issues associated with reduced incidental exercise.

These are two possible scenarios of a driverless-car-enabled future, and, according to WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff manager of sustainable transportation Lauren Isaac, it will be governments who decide which one of these visions become our reality.

Ms Isaac, who is currently in Australia from the US for the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress, told The Fifth Estate government policy was vital for getting driverless cars to work effectively for everyone, and could mean implementing some strategies that have in the past proved controversial, including road user charges and urban growth boundaries.

There are huge issues regarding driverless car risks, with the dominant conversations happening around safety, ethical decision-making and technological advancement, though the role of driverless cars in steering the shape of our cities is less debated, though equally important.

In her recent report, Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies, Isaac describes either a “nightmare” or “utopia” scenario regarding the future of driverless cars and our cities, with government policy the determining factor

The problem is that there are few governments acknowledging the inevitable move to driverless cars in their long-range transportation plans. A potential block is that while we know driverless cars are coming – it’s inevitable – the question is now “when?”, and “in what form?” How to reconcile the inevitability with the unknown is “the big question government agencies are asking”, Isaac says.

An “important first step” governments can take, she says, is acknowledging that driverless cars are coming and try to build understanding in agencies about what that means in terms of benefits – such as hugely increased safety and reduced greenhouse gas emissions; and risks – such as cyber-security and urban sprawl.

Incorporating driverless technology into city and state goals could be one way of getting driverless cars more firmly on the agenda. For example Vision Zero is a multi-national road safety project that aims for zero road fatalities. Driverless cars have an important role to play in that strategy, Isaac says.

The next important thing is engaging with the private sector, and seeing how governments can help them progress the technology, for example by providing testing areas. Isaac says Perth is an Australian leader, with a driverless bus being tested along the foreshore in South Perth, running a few kilometres and providing first-hand information to local and state governments about what rules and regulations may need to change to make it viable and workable.

Asked if cultural preferences, such as whether people want to own their own car or are comfortable sharing rides, will affect outcomes, Isaac points to cost and convenience as the most important shapers of transport preference.

Owning a vehicle has been the “default”, because they have offered cost and convenience. But if there were price incentives to treat driverless cars as services rather than products to own, and to share, then preferences could modulate. If cities provide more choices and different mobility options – and price them the right way – Isaac believes her more utopian vision of driverless technology could become a reality.

What that means for governments, though, are some tough, potentially politically unpalatable solutions to protect against externalities in the medium-to-long-term. The funny thing is that solutions to ensuring driverless cars work for society at large exist already, and have been debated in the public sphere extensively.

“All of the risks identified in the guide were pretty significant, but the recommendations around those risks are mechanisms that exist today,” Isaac says. “They are all policy mechanisms that could be pulled today.

One is road user charging. If road user charging was in place – charging per kilometre travelled or at certain times – people would really have to think carefully about whether it’s a good idea to drive through rush hour instead of, say, having a driverless shuttle take you to a train station then hop on a share bike to work, Isaac says. It’s about making things cost-reflective, taking into regard the societal costs. And this is why governments need to be central to the response because the private sector doesn’t operate with the same motivations to get good societal outcomes. And while road user charging has proven controversial, Isaac believes one solution could be introducing the charges only for the new technology. Combined with the cost-benefits of driverless car it could make it a politically palatable way to get the changes of the ground, which many reports have said are crucial to tackling congestion, though governments have been unwilling to pursue.

“Driverless vehicles present the opportunity to introduce these policies in a slightly less controversial way.”

On the threat of urban sprawl, Isaac thinks it’s a live issue regardless of driverless cars or not, it’s just that the risks will be much greater. Governments will still need to promote transit-oriented development, good amenities and making places appealing to work and live. But urban growth boundaries are one way Isaac says governments can protect against unchecked sprawl that could materialise as living further away becomes less of a hassle – another suggestion that conservative-leaning governments have been loath to consider.

“I really believe the government has such as important role to play,” she says. “The private sector is going to bring this technology to our society.” Governments, she says, must respond – through policy, price signals and good transit investment – so society in large can reap the benefits.

Ms Isaac will be speaking on how local governments can plan for driverless vehicles at the ITS World Congress on Friday. Read Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies.

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  1. Why are “driverless cars” needed, the car has no future it’s simply an unsustainable transport solution that uses far to much space per person transported to ever be viable at todays population densities. Once a cities size reaches a 70 minute drive to the city, the population is too large to support the space necessary for car infrastructure, the cost of the space becomes so high it’s cheaper to tunnel,tunneling for cars cannot be afforded.
    Westconnex is spending 16 billion dollars to allow 12,000 peak hour cars to drive, that’s a 1.3 million dollars per peak hour car subsidy. A single metro line can carry 24,000 per hour. The subsidy per passenger is much lower, only a small fraction of the cost of subsidies to cars.

  2. All this hype about driverless cars is just a distraction from the reality that in the years to come there will be the next phase of the oil crisis which started in 2005. The low oil price since 2014 suggests that the world cannot afford $100 oil.
    But now the oil companies can’t make money in the upstream sector. They are reducing investments in new oil fields which are required to offset decline in legacy fields. When the portfolio of projects started during the high oil price period has been commissioned, decline will take over….