In 2018, connected vehicles will start joining national fleets. These are vehicles that send and receive information from other vehicles around them. This means long lines of cars or buses travelling at the speed limit with only a fraction of a metre between them.
For four years of my career I worked for New Zealand’s Ministry of Defence. Part of my team’s role was to make sure that we were replacing ships, aircraft and armoured personnel carriers with solutions that were geared for the future. Transformations in technology and changes in public expectations meant that what we wanted to buy a decade or two ago might not have been the best choice for the next 20 years.
The same applies for transport. I have worked as a traffic engineer since the late 1980s. Many of the solutions that were being pushed then are still being pushed now. Is there a risk that we are too narrowly focussed on finally getting yesterday’s solutions?
I think we are.
In 2018, connected vehicles will start joining national fleets. These are vehicles that send and receive information from other vehicles around them. This means long lines of cars or buses travelling at the speed limit with only a metre or so between them could appear on our motorways. The braking systems of all the cars will work in tandem, so the reaction time to slow down will be instantaneous. If they are all electric vehicles then this will be an energy efficient way to travel.
A typical strategic transport corridor may have a rail line and three lanes of motorway in each direction. Each full six-carriage train moves as many people as 576 cars on the motorway lanes (assuming 1.5 people in each car) and so moves around 12,000 people an hour (more people than the 10,000 or so people moved per hour on three-lanes of motorway). But now let’s assume that we can get four people in each car, so now we’re up to 25,000 people on those three motorway lanes. Let’s assume that we have our connected vehicle platoons, and then we may be moving over 80,000 people per hour. This would change congestion as we have known it for many decades, and do so without the scale of public investment required for expanding highways and rail.
But we all know that car-pooling doesn’t really work: everyone wants to go to different places at different times and have the flexibility to change their plans. To get our vehicles full requires a massive change in behaviour and technology. Uber has designed an App called UberPool. This App knows where you are, where you want to go, mixes this information with everyone else wanting to travel and tells each driver who to pick up and where to drop them off. If a large number of people use Apps like UberPool then we can get four people to a car whizzing along the motorway in private vehicles, and combined with the trains, move four times the people per hour than we do today.
This is not a reason to stop investment in rail or motorways in anticipation of connected vehicles and apps like UberPool. Are you ready to hop into a stranger’s connected car? At Beca, I ran a global thought-leadership session where we found that 40% of attendees felt public transport (PT) will still be the top choice for them. A well-functioning PT system remains the minimum entry level to being a Smart City. For connected vehicles, we need to have a completed motorway network without bottlenecks.
We need a balanced focus on public transport, rail, roads, cycling and walking. But our future transport solutions are not just what we’ve needed for decades, finally delivered. I propose that we can again “build our way out of traffic congestion”. It’s just that we won’t only be building concrete, asphalt and steel rails, we’ll also need to be building Apps. Anyone for a lift?