Can autonomous car unravel the mobility tangle?
Will the autonomous car of the future be the solution to unravel today’s mobility tangle? Newspaper De Tijd went looking for two experts to find an answer. Yes, says Transport & Mobility researcher, Sven Maerivoet. No, says Dirk Lauwers, traffic expert from the Ghent University.
“One of the big advantages of the autonomous car will be on the highway”, says Maerivoet. “Connected cars can drive closely to each other, given they can leave a distance of a quarter of a second between cars, instead of the 1,6 seconds that is today’s standard safety distance.”
Six times more lane capacity
When today the capacity of a highway lane is around 2.200 vehicles per hour, this could be multiplied by a factor of six, according to the expert. On one condition though: that we feel save in those cars.
Dirk Lauwers is not convinced. He is looking more at the city, that he thinks, should be left to pedestrians and cyclists. He points at the fact that a car needs 20 times more space than a tram. “Self-driving cars will be able to drive somewhat closer to each other. But catching up with that factor of 20 will never be possible.”
Intelligent traffic lights
Sven Maerivoet sees benefits for the city too with the autonomous car, in combination with intelligent traffic lights, for instance. “It’s getting really interesting when intelligent traffic lights signal an approaching car when the light will be green, so the car can start slowing down or accelerate.”
And it will even get more interesting, Maerivoet adds, when all traffic lights are communicating with each other and you get a smart, self-steering city. “You can regulate traffic with self-driving and connected cars.”
When a traffic jams is starting to form further on the road, your car can slow down so the traffic jam will dissolve sooner. “Traffic management will become a dream when all cars will be connected.”
At the push of a button
However, Dirk Lauwers fears a growing number of autonomous cars will lead to more congestion, more traffic jams. “My mother is 92 and doesn’t drive anymore. Sometimes I pick her up with the car. But if I’ll have the opportunity to send a robot car to get her at the push of a button, I’ll do that more often.”
“I could ask the robot car to pick up my children at school. In the US Uber offers a service to pick up children at school. Children that used to go by foot before. Uber already causes more traffic and congestion in US cities by offering a cheap driver. With the robot car the cost of the driver is zero…”
Changing mobility behaviour
Sven Maerivoet agrees that self-driving cars won’t solve the traffic jams if we don’t change our mobility behaviour. “If you let a robot car bring your children to school in the morning and it drives back empty or has to find a parking spot for the day, you’re on the wrong track. If that car can pick up somebody else on the way back, that’s a different story.”
“Big question is how strongly we are going to hold on to our own car. Today few people realize a car costs 500 to 800 euro per month, all expenses calculated. If you confront smokers with how much their habit costs them in reality, they are shocked. For car owners this cost is many times higher…”
More car sharing
Maerivoet believes that when people start realizing this, car sharing will grow in popularity. Especially when a kilometre tax will be introduced. It can boost the autonomous car too, as they will be too expensive in the beginning to be owned privately.
Imagine, says Marivoet, that a residential neighbourhood in the future has an electric autonomous vehicle at its disposal. “This way you could get private cars off the road.”
Drive larger distances
Dirk Lauwers doesn’t expect people to share cars more in the advent of the autonomous car. “Half of Flemish people never uses public transport. Some even don’t want to share a certain space with people they don’t know. Will they share an autonomous car?”
Lauwers thinks people will use autonomous cars to drive larger distances. “People in Flanders move on average 90 minutes a day. It is this way for 40 years or more already without changing. But in a self-driving car the travelling time looks different as people can do other things while been driven.” That opens the gate for more people leaving the cities to live in the countryside, he thinks.
He sees two scenarios for the future. In one, a self-driving car brings you from point A to B, which will lead to more congestion. In the other, the robot car brings you to a station where you can take an autonomous train or tram. “That’s the best scenario where you gain in space with public transport as a backbone.”
He also fears the autonomous car will limit the freedom of pedestrians and cyclists. “The government will try to keep the latter away from the car lanes, as robot cars will be programmed to always stop for pedestrians. And those will exploit that opportunity without hesitating all the time…”