Saturday, September 15, 2012

Will the autonomous car replace public transport?

One year ago, BrizCommuter wrote a blog post on personal rapid transit (PRT) pods, the link is below:
These pods allow on-demand public transport journeys, and carry between 1 and 6 passengers. Unfortunately they have have a major flaw - they require their own specially constructed guideway. Due to this flaw, there aren't an awful lot of PRT systems around the world, and most proposals have not progressed to construction. In the last few years, an alternative to PRT has increasingly been in the news - the autonomous car.  A driverless autonomous car received it's first licence in the US state of Nevada in March 2012. Many companies including Google, General Motors, and BMW, as well an quite a few universities are developing and experimenting with autonomous cars. The wikipedia articles for the Google developed driverless car, and autonomous cars in general are below:

If the development of autonomous cars can get through the many safety and legislative hurdles, what does this mean for public transport in the future? Public transport has well known issues in areas of low population density, and at times of low demand. This can increase car reliance, and as most SE Queenslanders will know from the recent news, many a death has been related to elderly drivers continuing to drive beyond when they are capable. A driverless car may allow those who do not want to drive, or cannot drive (too young, too old, drunk, medical conditions), an on-demand, to almost anywhere form of transport. Frequent car users will be able to purchase their own autonomous car instead of a manual car, whilst less frequent car users may be able to hire them on demand like a taxi (minus the taxi driver!). Other advantages may include reducing parking issues, as the car can drop off the passenger at their place of work and then park outside of the CBD. The cars may also be able to drop the passengers off at a train station or airport, and then travel back home. Car sharing opportunities may also be increased. 

With many advantages, will the driverless car completely replace public transport? Autonomous cars will not solve urban traffic congestion, and if they attract passengers away from public transport they may even make traffic congestion worse. They also rely on the gross inefficiency of cars due to low number of passengers per vehicle, thus having a considerably higher energy to passenger ratio than public transport. Public transport will still continue to be more environmentally friendly than autonomous cars.

An (almost) autonomous train
To conclude, there is most definitely a future for autonomous cars, although the time frame is speculated as being anything from 8 to 44 years away. They may provide transport options to places that public transport finds difficult to reach, and certainly put taxi drivers out of a job. However, due to the having the same inefficiencies as cars, there will still be a place for public transport, which of course will also be autonomous in the future. Interestingly, it should be noted that there have been driverless and unattended "autonomous" trains since the early 1980s!

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