Four trends that could clean up road transport

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Shelley, a custom-rigged self-driving Audi TTS by Stanford University engineers. [Joseph Thornton / Flickr]

The move towards autonomous vehicles, driven by the progressive electrification of transport, and backed up by road pricing schemes, all carry the potential of radically cleaning up Europe’s transport system, writes Greg Archer.

Greg Archer is clean vehicles manager at Transport & Environment, a green campaign group.

Our current transport system is profoundly unsustainable producing more than a quarter of Europe’s CO2 emissions. It is the dominant source of air pollution causing the deaths of almost half a million citizens annually. Our current cars are grossly inefficient too, typically using just 1-2% of the energy in the fuel to move the person. Economically, congestion imposes an annual cost of €100 billion reducing GDP by 1%. This cannot go on. Fortunately, it does not need to. Four trends are likely to dominate mobility in the next 10-20 years with the possibility, but no guarantee, that they will collectively deliver more sustainable mobility.

Firstly, vehicles will be progressively electrified and work in tandem with modernised, smart grids that will be increasingly powered by renewables. Electricity will be entirely decarbonised by 2050 and the steep reductions in the price of wind, solar and batteries create the conditions for an electro-mobility revolution. That’s not just electric cars but also trains, bikes, scooters, vans and, ultimately, hybrid and electric trucks that can be recharged through overhead lines. These vehicles will support the grid by providing a flexible source of storage and demand – charged mainly at night when demand is low.

The dieselgate scandal has helped show the car industry the writing is on the wall for the infernal combustion engine. Nissan-Renault was an early mover in developing battery electric vehicles, but in recent months billions in investments have been committed to by Volkswagen Group and Mercedes, while both have teamed up with BMW and Ford to develop a fast charging network that will charge the car while you have a cup of tea. Other manufacturers have similar plans. This is no longer greenwash.

Secondly, cars will be connected. They will communicate with one another and road infrastructure so that traffic lights will turn green instead of red as we drive towards them. This could improve efficiency and help reduce urban congestion and emissions by 5%. But connectivity is a double edged sword; we will need to ensure that the road space created by the connected car efficiency is not lost through more vehicles driving on the road.

Thirdly, cars will become autonomous. Driverless vehicles integrate well with electric cars. 10-20% energy savings could be possible if driving efficiency is optimised. Also, with more than 90% of accidents caused by human error, automation will dramatically lower crash rates and thus allow safety equipment to be shed. The smaller and lighter vehicles could bring a 20% reduction in fuel consumption.

And fourth, whether connected, driverless and electric cars really deliver more sustainable mobility will depend upon whether cars are largely shared or owned. If we don’t share, the extra road space that connected vehicles can free up, as well as the lower time and running costs of electric and driverless cars, will simply pull more traffic onto the road. Traffic jams of single-occupant cars will be worsened by driverless cars. So we need shared vehicles to displace our inefficient, expensive private ones that anyway sit unused 95% of the time.

So how do we make this happen? How do we ensure we create a sustainable transport heaven and not a driverless car hell? Driverless cars must be electric. We must ensure that the risks of expanding car use through automation are minimised by at least ensuring the vehicles are zero emission in use.

Also, road pricing for cars must be used to suppress the insatiable demand for road space and ensure driverless, electric cars are integrated into public transport systems. Fuel duty revenues will anyway have to be replaced. Electric cars must pay less than dirty diesels.

Shared vehicles must also pay much less than privately owned ones that should pay a premium for using the road. In highly congested city centres private cars may ultimately need to be banned; in the short term banning first dirty diesels and then all internal combustion engines from our cities is an important step.

As connectivity creates road space – and sharing increases – road space must be reduced. We must turn our carparks into parks, our multi-stories into affordable homes. As our urban population grows we must create space for people to live in cities and reduce the dominance of the car but not eliminate its unique benefits.

All this will require transport to attract the political attention it so desperately needs and so consistently fails to attract. It will require a level of integration of EU, national and city level transport policy that we are light years away from and require the European Commission and national Governments to share the responsibilities. Cities must be given the resources and powers to act. The change will require substantial investment and innovative financing but the benefits to our environment, our economy and our quality of life are huge.