Driverless Cars “Not Necessarily a Force for Good”

Report urges government action on autonomous vehicles

Driverless cars

Researchers at the University of Sydney Business School have warned that governments must act now to prevent runaway urban sprawl and “intolerable” levels of road congestion brought about by new disruptive technologies in the transport sector.

A list of recommendations prepared by the School’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS), urges governments to make regulatory changes allowing incumbent bus operators the flexibility to offer both fixed-route and on-demand transport services and to introduce a new user-pays road charging system.

The recommendations are included in a report titled ‘Moving People in the Future: Land passenger transport and “new” mobility technology’ (pdf, 971kb), which was recently presented to the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, Alan Tudge.

In the report, ITLS researchers predict one of the fastest, deepest and most consequential disruptions of transportation in history with a significant increase over the next two decades in the number of electric and autonomous vehicles on the road.

They also predict autonomous vehicles will add another layer to fixed-route public transport services with small localised operators offering on-demand services to a streamlined set of thriving, high-capacity bus and rail arterials.

“New technology combining smartphones and autonomous vehicles of all sizes will provide an integrated transport offering called mobility as a service,” said one of the report’s authors, ITLS Research Analyst Yale Wong. “This will give greater mobility to everyone including the elderly and disadvantaged groups.”Autonomous vehicles could also mean people no longer have to own private cars while cheaper public transport will mean less pressure on the public purse and bring enormous potential for increased accessibility and social inclusion.Yale Wong

However, Mr Wong also said that “the inevitable rise of electric and autonomous vehicles may not necessarily be a force for good if they lead to greater congestion and urban sprawl.”

“Simple economics suggests that when cars are more affordable, they will also be more attractive to use,” added ITLS Director Professor David Hensher. “We can expect a notable increase in car kilometres travelled leading to a significant increase in congestion with its corresponding impact on productivity, the economy and stress levels.”

ITLS has recommended that governments adopt radical road pricing reform which ensures that “those who benefit pay an efficient charge for using the roads.”

“Our preferred option is a five-cent per kilometre levy in capital cities during the weekday peak periods in return for removal of part of the registration fees so that the majority of car drivers are not worse off financially and actually save travel time,” said Professor Hensher.

A recent survey by the ITLS found a levy system would encourage up to 70 per cent of drivers to move their travel to off-peak.

“Minister Tudge was exceptionally receptive to the idea that a road user charge can be politically palpable when ‘hidden’ from the end user as an input into a mobility as a service package price, premised on a future where people no longer own cars but rather consume them as a service,” Mr Wong concluded.

The ‘Moving People in the Future’ report was produced in cooperation with Australia’s peak industry body, the Bus Industry Confederation.