For years, we’ve been told to expect a transport revolution: get ready for the driverless car! And yes, there are little signs of it happening – from universities using automated vehicles to ferry guests around on open days to the deployment of driverless transport as a way of circumventing coronavirus restrictions. But aside from feeling twinges of jealousy when watching self-controlled limos speeding characters around on shows like Westworld, we’ve more or less let the whole idea slip from our consciousness.
And that’s a shame because automated vehicles (AV) have enormous potential to change society.
“It is very hard to change people and transport behaviours,” says Greg Giraud, Managing Director at EasyMile (the same company behind the University of Western Australia’s automated open day bus). “But if we can provide options to influence these toward shared and public transports, this is a substantial contribution to the liveability of our cities.”
So what’s the hold-up? Well, it’s not shortcomings of the technology.
“Of the five levels of automation – Level 5 being complete automation, with no human intervention whatsoever – Level 4 is where we currently are at,” says Greg. “Level 4 is still considered to be fully autonomous driving and the vehicle can handle the majority of driving situations independently, although a human driver can still request and take control.”
Part of the difficulty with introducing AV tech is less about negotiating roads, more about negotiating legislation. “It can sometimes be challenging to work with regulatory approval as this is an area that is evolving along with the technology,” Greg explains. “We work closely with government agencies to assist their development of autonomous vehicle regulations – in Australia, every state we operate in is governed by different policies and regulations regarding autonomous vehicle deployments on public roads, including everything from licensing and insurance to permits.”
The answer has been to take the vehicles into closed communities. EasyMile’s focus on shared and public transport, rather than the provision of individual cars for individual households, has already had great success in lifestyle and aged-care villages.
“Closed communities are often less complex than open roads and provide a more controlled environment from a speed and traffic standpoint, making them a more reachable market from a technology standpoint,” says Greg. “Additionally, they do not abide by the same regulations and provide a more captive environment from a user-acceptance perspective.
“AV shuttles meet a clear market need for mobility on private sites, and our prediction is that such sites will continue to be the earlier adopters of autonomous vehicles. We ran a short project at the IRT Kangara Waters retirement community in the ACT, and our shuttle enabled residents to go out to the village’s restaurant and return to a more social life.”
Winning over hearts and minds with projects like these will also go a long way towards overcoming the other major hurdle to widespread AV use: public perception.
“We have got a big job ahead of us to get community acceptance,” Greg explains. “Currently in Australia and globally we have about 70 per cent of people who say they would not trust AV. The interesting thing is that after riding on one of our shuttles, their perception flips: the vast majority of passengers surveyed after using our service – more than 80 per cent in some cases – tell us that they’d be ready to use AVs as a transport mode on a regular basis. There is no better way to help people get over their fear than to have them take a ride.”
Assuming they can navigate these roadblocks, automated vehicles could change urban life on myriad levels. The obvious benefit will be environmental – electric, driverless cars will reduce emissions, more so if, as predicted, people switch to communal use rather than individual ownership.
“We are reaching ‘peak car’ and car ownership is on the decline,” Greg says. “They are leading to congestion, significant greenhouse gas emissions, and getting in the way of more active ways of transport such as walking or cycling.
“I think now, more than ever, young people are excited to not own vehicles and we’re seeing a decrease in drivers’ licences, creating an opportunity for a paradigm shift in how people use their vehicle to get around.”
But emission control is just the start. Something about cars that we rarely think about, says Greg, is that they spend very little of their time on the road. “Overall, private cars are used less than 10 per cent of time, sitting in a parking space or garage for the rest of it. Even a sidewalk moves more people per hour on average than a car lane.”
And if that’s the case, one of the biggest areas of change we could see from widespread AV use is the sudden provision of space. Imagine not needing to own your own car because you could call in a communal driverless vehicle any time you wanted; residences would suddenly have less need for garages and car ports, and that space could be reclaimed as liveable space.
Expand the point, and cities in general could benefit from a reallocation of land previously set aside for car parks. The Transportation Research Institute at the University of Toronto has estimated up to 87 per cent of parking space could be freed up. A simple switch to convert these areas to green space could have even greater impact on sustainability. What’s more, with automated cars able to travel more closely together, the size of road lanes can be reduced, allowing for more pavement area or cycle lanes.
Essentially, the focus in cities would be able to shift dramatically from the needs of its transport to the needs of its people, whose mental health would also receive a boost. You would no longer have to concentrate on the road when traveling – you could read, watch TV, sneak in some work before you get to the office, or just nap.
And that’s exactly why Greg believes EasyMile’s projects are so vital.
“We’re on the cusp of a transport revolution,” he says, “and these projects provide the opportunity for the community to be part of the journey and the learning process. To see the benefits and see the future.”