One third of city journeys will be autonomous, says WEF

One third of city journeys will be autonomous, says WEF

Autonomous and on-demand transport will form one-third of all urban journeys, according to a new World Economic Forum report, and reduce the need for parking. However, without the right regulations and management in place, the result could be city centres that are more, not less, congested. Chris Middleton reports.

Autonomous cars and driver-assistance systems have had a rough ride in the press this year. Two fatal accidents involving cars under software control, and two high-level reports revealing falling consumer confidence in the technologies have dented industry hopes. Meanwhile, Tesla’s internal woes have hardly helped the cause, given the company’s – and its CEO’s – status as a poster boy of change.

But peaks and troughs are characteristics of every wave, so it’s inevitable that problems will occur when anything as important as transport is being disrupted by new technology, and the very concept of urban car ownership is challenged by on-demand systems and new business models.

So what will autonomous vehicles’ impact really be, once the hype and hysteria have died down? How will they reshape urban mobility, as the West faces a future of ageing populations in ageing cities, while Africa and Asia meet a very different challenge: booming youth populations in young cities? (For more on this, see our separate report: City of Robots: How robotics & automation could solve cities’ most serious problems.)

Three years ago, the World Economic Forum partnered with the Boston Consulting Group to explore every avenue of this critical question in the city of Boston, MA, and the results of their joint research programme have just been published.

Their 36-page report, Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles: Lessons from the City of Boston, predicts that mobility on demand will account for one-third of all trips in the city – statistics that are likely to be mirrored in cities throughout the world.

“Consumer research supplemented our collaboration with the City of Boston,” explains the report. “A 2015 consumer survey showed strong interest in autonomous vehicles [AVs]  around the world, with 60 percent of respondents indicating that they would ride in an AV.

“Among the many perceived benefits of the new technology, city dwellers valued AVs most because they eliminated the need to find parking.”

Resident Knievel

“In 2016, we conducted a series of detailed focus groups with residents of the Greater Boston area,” the report continues. “Our findings revealed that families with young children struggle with alternatives to the private car; that consumers are rapidly embracing Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services to fill a gap between public transport and private-vehicle ownership; and that consumers are concerned about the public transportation system.”

Since then, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has produced a report suggesting that consumer support for driverless systems has been severely damaged by March’s fatal accidents, involving Uber and Tesla cars running under software control.

Nevertheless, the Boston researchers claim to have generated a detailed, long-term view of how mobility will evolve in cities. “Research participants were presented with variables, such as the length of the trip and the time of day, and were required to make discrete choices about what mode of transport they would use,” explains the report.

“This approach generated a realistic and granular view of how mobility will evolve in Boston. Our analysis predicts a clear shift to mobility on demand (for both autonomous and traditional vehicles), which will account for nearly 30 percent of all trips in the Greater Boston area, and 40 percent of trips within city limits in the future.

“Driving this shift are the cost-competitive nature of robo-taxis and robo-shuttles – especially on shorter trips – and the added convenience and comfort, compared with mass transit.”

In suburban and other areas outside the city, the WEF and Boston Consulting analysis found that mobility on demand will mainly replace personal car usage. However, in urban areas it will replace the use of both personal cars and mass transit to equal degrees, with the shift creating a risk of increased congestion.

“Policymakers must assess and address the potential challenge and identify the right policy levers to influence this transition,” urges the report. “AVs’ impact on traffic will vary by neighbourhood and be shaped by policy.”

So why will congestion increase?

Three key findings

To understand the effects of AVs in Boston, the researchers built a traffic simulation model that showed the contrasts between current traffic patterns and future scenarios, including personal vehicles, taxis, private AVs, and shared on-demand services.

From this, three important findings emerged:

  • Shared AVs will reduce the number of vehicles on the streets and reduce overall travel times across the city. The findings showed that the number of vehicles on the road will decrease by 15 percent, while the total number of miles travelled will increase by 16 percent. Travel times will improve, but only by four percent on average, adds the report.
  • However, introducing shared AVs will worsen congestion in downtown areas. Despite an overall reduction in traffic, congestion will worsen in some part of the city, mainly because customers will often choose AVs as substitutes for short public transport trips. As a result, travel time will increase by 5.5 percent in downtown areas. But other areas will see an improvement, adds the report. “In Allston, a neighbourhood outside the city’s core, mobility on demand will mainly replace the use of personal cars rather than mass transit, and travel time will decrease by 12.1 percent.”
  • With the new modal mix, Boston will require roughly half as many parking spots, including those on streets and in car parks. As a result, AVs present an opportunity to rethink the overall design of city centres and suburbs.

However, it stands to reason that many cities may lose valuable sources of revenue as a result – something not explored in the report. For example, in the financial year 2015-16, the 353 local authorities in England generated combined revenues of £756 million from on- and off-street parking.

Regulating change

The Boston research findings suggest that some companies’ claims that autonomous vehicles will simply arrive and solve every transport problem are wide of the mark.

In some areas, congestion will fall and mobility will increase, but in others – particularly in crowded areas already served by public transport – congestion will worsen and journey times increase. Even in areas where congestion is predicted to fall, journey times may only see marginal improvements. Meanwhile, cities will need to examine their revenue models.

This is one reason why some companies, such as Uber, believe that the future of urban transportation will be as much about autonomous, on-demand air taxis as vehicles on the street.

That aside, the issues of congestion and speed are where policymakers need to step in and look at the challenges, both individually and holistically. “Local governments hold the key to influencing these results because they have the power to implement the right policies and incentives”, acknowledges the report.

“The greatest effects are likely to come from occupancy-based pricing schemes, in which financial incentives discourage single-occupancy rides. This measure could improve citywide travel time by 15 percent.”

Leadership is critical, continues the report. One of the WEF/Boston Consulting research goals in partnering with the City of Boston was to catalyse AV testing in the city, it adds, noting the numerous partnerships and experimental programmes that emerged as a direct result of that decision.

In short, a determination to effect and explore change within a city galvanises innovators to make that change happen.

The research partners pursued these collaborations to understand how to unlock AVs’ “tremendous potential to generate social value” (saved lives, saved time and enhanced access for people who are elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged). So what was the result?

“We conclude that cities, nations, and the world will need to embrace a regulatory and governance framework for AVs that nudges us towards an ‘AV heaven’ scenario, and away from ‘AV hell’,” it says.

“AVs enable the greatest transformation in urban mobility since the creation of the automobile. However, their social benefits can be unlocked only if governments understand and implement the appropriate policies and governance structures.”

Internet of Business says

With more than 100 AV pilots under way around the world, the lessons learned in Boston are timely and relevant, as the report itself says.

With robo-taxi services fast approaching in some cities, and other companies exploring the potential of autonomous deliveries, the time to get the policy decisions right is now.