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Will Congestion In Cities Increase When Autonomous Vehicles Take Over?

An article this month in the magazine Cyclists published by the The Danish Cyclists’ Federation argues that the advent of autonomous vehicles in our cities will lead to more congestion than we have already.

An article this month in the magazine Cyclists published by the The Danish Cyclists’ Federation argues that the advent of autonomous vehicles in our cities will lead to more congestion than we have already.

The Prospect of Congestion

A number of people bring important points to this discussion in the article. While autonomous electric vehicles (AEV) certainly will bring down the number of accidents and particulates in the air, one could rightfully argue that they take up more space than bicycles. Jens Martin Skibsted, member of the think tank for Cities and Urbanization at The World Economic Forum, shares this perspective:

The lack of space is the big problem, when we discuss mobility in cities. No matter how smart, autonomous, and electric, the cars get, the space available on streets and roads are limited. The advent of electric autonomous vehicles can contribute to traffic growth and make cities even more congested … There will hardly be fewer cars overall.

The article uses Copenhagen as an example. Even though it is a relatively small capital city with its 1.3 million residents, it’s still a huge challenge to accommodate the need for people getting in and out of the city center daily. The mayor deputy of environment and technology of Copenhagen, Ninna Hedeager Olsen, does not see that autonomous vehicles are the solution: “The first reports from the Danish Road Directorate indicate that congestion will rise if autonomous vehicles are introduced. One of the reasons for this is that people without a driver’s license will be able to use a car.” However, she does hope that the growth in car sharing that autonomous vehicle will unlock will free up more space in the city for pedestrians and cyclists. She also clarifies that bicycle infrastructure is major priority in the plans for Copenhagen as a sustainable city: “We need many more to start cycling, as the city is projected to add another 100,000 residents in the coming years.”

Steen Nørby Nielsen at Siemens Mobility also comments in the article that he does not believe congestion will go down when the number of autonomous vehicles go up:

If you imagine that the many people who travel in and out of Copenhagen should start using autonomous vehicles it’s obvious it would not work. It’s simply not possible. Even though Copenhagen is a small city in a global perspective there is a huge demand for transportation from the suburbs and beyond … hundreds of thousands commute by rail to the inner city daily. At Siemens we still see the need of high-capacity transport systems like rail that bring people into city centers. From there they can transit to electric buses, bikes, and autonomous cars.

He also points out that several analyses show that autonomous vehicles will create more traffic because they will be cheap and so easily available. And he adds that it is the responsibility of the authorities and politicians to plan ahead to ensure that these systems work together.

Now, most CleanTechnica readers have heard about Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Tony Seba, and I’m guessing a few have heard about the founder of Electric Vehicles Outlook Roger Atkins too. These two see things differently. Tony Seba predicts that by 2030 95% of all personal mobility will be by AEVs and the global fleet of cars will only be 20% of what is it today. In Roger Atkins’ opinion the result of the auto industry realizing that money will not be made from selling cars but from selling miles, the global number of vehicles currently being counted in billions will instead be counted in millions.

In other words, personal mobility as a service (MaaS), embedded in transportation as a service (TaaS) is happening now because of a convergence in three key technologies: on-demand transportation business models (like Uber, Lyft, etc.), autonomy (essentially the operating system), and electric propulsion (driven by low battery prices). It will happen, whether we like it or not, very soon. The smartphone happened, whether some liked it or not. Decision makers who ignore this and say we must do something else, are being irresponsible. In this context I reached out to Steen Nørby Nielsen by email and asked him why he does not believe the actual bulk of hardware on the streets will be radically reduced. He must be busy crunching numbers. I will update if he responds…

It may be that Copenhagen is a special case, but I doubt it. When I think of AEVs I think of highly efficient and interconnected units that will keep optimizing routes, time, and passenger capacity relentlessly. There is a term for that: Swarm technology. I really don’t see how fleets of highly capable and nimble people-moving-pods should not be able to compete with bulky buses and rigid trains. A level 5 AEV will use next to nothing of its distributed computation capacity to figure out how to maneuver the suburbs in order to utilize 4 or more seats and head into town, where it can use a bit more computation capacity to hook up in convoys with other vehicles to maximize energy efficiency and minimize use of space. The bulk of computing capacity will be used to avoid killing living organisms, like people on bicycles.

By the way, in terms of energy efficiency, my own calculations give a 5-seat occupied electric vehicle an energy consumption 5 times greater than that of an electric bike as opposed to a fully occupied internal combustion engine vehicle at 15 times greater energy consumption than an electric bike (derived from the actual chemical energy potential of gasoline of which most is of course wasted as heat).

The Quest for Efficiency

With all due respect to the experts in the above mentioned article, I think it would be unwise to conclude that level 4 and 5 autonomy would increase congestion at this point. Luckily someone is actually bringing people together to try and figure all this out — a major conference on the subject is to be held in Copenhagen in September, the 25th ITS World Congress. ITS stands for Intelligent Transport Systems and the conference is organized by ERTICO, a private-public partnership of 120 members from the mobility sector, working toward the development of seamless pan-European Mobility as a Service. Piia Karjalainen, coordinator of the MaaS Alliance at ERTICO – ITS Europe has this to say about MaaS:

The real beauty of Mobility as a Service is that it is now the end-user, the passenger, who decides. For the first time in the history of transport, it is not the user who should adapt his / her mobility behaviour based on the supply, but instead there are services responding to our actual mobility needs – and not only those of an anonymous average user. This is enabled by advanced technical solutions and synergetic co-existence of innovative and established transport services. By combining various transport services we can provide attractive mobility options also for those whose needs haven’t been fulfilled by traditional public transit services. Integration here is the key word.

In regards to mobility as a service I think it is important to mention that when something is a service, people expect it to be available at all times. Like the internet. Bicycles are great, and don’t get me wrong, I wish many, many more would use bicycles, because the benefits are humongous, especially in terms of energy efficiency and health. However, in my own experience, I use car, bus, or train, when rain or snow starts pouring down. Get it? The internet does not close down when it rains. Nor will fleets of AEVs. This is an important difference between enclosed-cabin and open-air transport that no one is really talking about.

A Few Other Things to Consider

Every single person’s need of transport is different, and who am I to tell what’s the most efficient way to proceed. But let’s not stop this train of thoughts, because this particular development in personal mobility affects us all, and the potential is enormous. So here a few points that came to mind:

  • The total cost of ownership of a gas powered car today is insane. I dare you to calculate your total cost per mile traveled, and that alone will make you consider buying a bicycle.
  • When MaaS is available to you, all that money you save not having a car can be converted into working less.
  • MaaS will allow you to live further away from your workplace and work in transit (provided you can do remote work), thus lowering population density in the city.
  • The flexibility of grabbing an AEV anywhere comes in handy if you were so unfortunate to start out on your bike and get caught in the rain.
  • The ability to work while traveling will also mean you don’t have to show up at work at a certain hour. Your work hours simply start when you enter the AEV, making it easier for the autonomous fleet operating system to smooth out congestion.

So, there you have it. It will certainly be interesting to see this develop further, and while you and I get used to AEVs in our infrastructure, we can observe if congestion goes up or down, and at the same time breathe cleaner air and be less worried about being hit by tons of steel thrown along the streets with grumpy, tired, and inattentive humans behind the steering wheel.

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