I spent a lot of time driving over the Winter break, and as a result had a lot of time to think as we hurtled down the French péage road network. Ironically, I seemed to be thinking a great deal about the challenges faced by self-driving cars…

What has struck me is, as ever, the people factors that potentially inhibit the growth of this new form of transport.

In the world of autonomous vehicles, one of the common narratives is the idea that cars go from objects that we individually maintain and purchase to utilities which we summon on demand – think Uber, but without the messy complication of a human sitting behind the steering wheel.

This all makes a lot of sense – cars spend some disproportionate amount of their lives (95% or so) parked, mostly in front of our homes. The “e-hailing” model would dramatically improve utilisation of these expensive devices, and also reduce down the need for parking space in our high-priced real estate cities. What’s not to like?

Well, putting aside technological challenges (our current cars are designed and built, presumably, with this low life utilisation in mind) and personal motivations (“If I wanted a shared car I’d ride a bus!”), there’s a larger societal issue at hand. Part of the reason why there’s such low utilisation of cars is because most people want to travel at roughly the same time – we call it rush hour.

Changing those behaviours is going to take much more than self-driving cars. If you like me have school-aged children, fancy a trip to the head teacher’s office to suggest more flexible arrangements when it comes to the school day?

Of course, surge-based pricing could have an effect – although those methods have been used for years on public transport and yet our trains and buses are still packed at the same times on every weekday. And pricing that negatively impacts “hardworking people” usually seems to get a rough ride.

There is no doubt that new forms of transport can dramatically change the ways our society structures itself (look at a map of London to see how the expansion of train lines in the late 1800s and early 1900s shaped the city to this day). But when it comes to the expansion of road transportation (as opposed to the introduction of an entirely new form) the record is much more patchy – if anything, creating new capacity on our road networks generates increased demand and as a result travel times and congestion remain intractable problems.

I’m sure that autonomous vehicles will have some great benefits. If nothing else, they’ll drive more safely than slow-to-react humans (I always feel far safer driving on motorways these days with automatic cruise control and emergency braking enabled). But will they suddenly make our roads clear and our journey times shorter? No until we address the more fundamental issues of what causes rush-hours. Of course, virtual working might well play a part here. We don’t all need to be physically in the same place at the same time, all the time these days do we? It’s not like the entire tech industry seems to have agglomerated around a small patch of California or anything, now is it?



2 thoughts on “Changing lanes

  1. Interesting how reality gets in the way, even when the numbers say something else. Kind of like the old say, stick one foot in a bucket of ice water and the other in a bucket of boiling water; on average, you’re comfortable.

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