We have five years to choose between transport heaven or hell

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Fully autonomous self-driving cars will soon be available for sale by 2020. And they could mean hell for cities if they are not regulated properly, warns Robin Chase. [Jason Mrachina / Flickr]

The expected benefits of electrified and shared vehicles are real and quantified. Yet, they are not guaranteed. There is another, darker, pathway that we could inadvertently slip into, called the “Hell Scenario” of autonomous mobility, warns Robin Chase.

Robin Chase is  co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, an American car-sharing company and a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group.

Transport is now Europe’s second biggest source of greenhouse gases, churning out around a quarter of our total emissions each year.

It is also the biggest cause of air pollution in many cities, emitting NOx and PM fumes that contribute to the premature deaths of more than four million people each year.

Children and the elderly are particularly at risk. But air pollution is not the only problem that transport brings to our urban areas. Noise is a persistent nuisance, and car parks and traffic jams continue to dominate the urban space.

Now stop a minute. Picture how your city would look if it were no longer dominated by the automobile. Fewer roads would be needed, creating more space for cycle lanes, wider pavements for pedestrians, more parks, green spaces and playgrounds for children.

Friends could meet on wide terraces to drink, eat or just breathe clean air and enjoy the quiet calm of a city where the car is no longer king. Just think, we might even be able to hear the birds singing again!

I call this the “Heaven Scenario” of shared autonomous mobility, and it lies within reach.

An average Dutch citizen already cycles 864km a year and has a 12% chance of obesity. By comparison, the typical American, cycles 47km a year and is three times more likely to be obese. That the car-related death rate of cyclists in the US is four times higher than in the Netherlands only underlines the point.

The sharing economy, combined with technology advances, could allow us to touch the heaven scenario. Instead of cars being utilised for only 5% of their lives, as now, by sharing we could increase their utilisation almost ten-fold.

Rather than travelling 15,000 km per year in Europe, the average shared autonomous car might drive over 100,000 km. That would free up space now used to store private cars – which currently lie idle for 95% of the time. Research shows that each shared car may remove up to 11 private cars from the street and the need to park them, and would help avoid nearly 13 metric tones of CO2 per year.

Car sharing would also bring down the costs of mobility. Today, the poorest fifth of our societies blow 40% of their income on transport. Spent on a personal car, most of that money leaves the local economy. But when people choose to walk or bike and pool their vehicular journeys – via ride shares, transit apps or e-hailing – household travel costs plunge to about a third of that, leaving more money to spend locally.

People with reduced mobility, such as the elderly and disabled, would regain their freedom. And shared cars might naturally become electrified – as the higher utilisation rate means that electricity would outcompete gasoline in Europe after 40,000 km on the clock, and diesel after 60,000 km.

By enabling the shift to electrification, shared electric vehicles would also boost Europe’s economy. Research by the European Climate Foundation shows that a transition to electric cars in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement would help avoid about €49bn of oil imports.

This would be replaced by domestically produced electricity and hydrogen – so transport energy costs would remain in our economies. The same research projects an uptick in GDP and around 200,000 net additional jobs within little more than a decade.

To reach this point, we need to plan cities and mobility together, with a focus on moving people, not cars. Infrastructure is destiny, and our transit to the 21st Century must involve an efficient use of available space and assets. It will also need fair user fees for travellers, just and equitable access to all means of transport and, once they arrive, autonomous vehicles deliberately designed for shared use. These values are laid out in the Shared Mobility Principles that over 100 companies and NGOs have endorsed.

Why? Because the benefits of electrified and shared travel are not guaranteed. There is another, darker, pathway that we could inadvertently slip into. I call it the “Hell Scenario” of autonomous mobility.

Europe can lead the way in driverless vehicles, MEPs say

The EU should take steps to accelerate the process of putting self-driving vehicles onto Europe’s roads to avoid being left behind China and the US, MEPs in the European Parliament’s transport committee said during a debate on Wednesday (29 August).

“Hell Scenario”

Imagine a world of self-driving diesels – fossil cars, belching out pollution as they endlessly circulate – often without anyone inside – performing errands for their owners: picking up a sandwich; collecting packages; clothes from the launderette; circling a football stadium waiting for the game to finish, and further choking our city space.

Fully autonomous self-driving cars will soon be available for sales in cities by 2020. In Europe, 17 cities, such as Paris, Rotterdam, Stockholm, London or Tallinn are piloting autonomous driving while manufacturers such as Honda, Hyundai and Toyota have already announced cars models able drive without a driver on highways by 2020. By 2021, Audi, Renault, BMW Ford and Volvo are expected to release full autonomous vehicles, ready to drive both on highways and urban environments.

Fortunately, we have time to choose the right turn-off: the one that benefits this generation and the next. The decisions we make in the next five years will determine which pathway we follow. It is critical cities use the lens of the Shared Mobility Principles to assess their regulatory, taxation, and infrastructure building, requiring that autonomous vehicles be electric, increasingly powered by renewable energy, and discouraging empty “zombie cars”, for example.

We can’t afford a wait and see approach. We need to work together to set the right laws and regulations, in particular in those cities that set the example. Transport automation gives us reasons to reconsider how, why and where we tax. Lets mobilise now to ensure we make the choice that benefits people, not car companies.

Sharing is caring. So why are European cities falling behind?

New mobility services like Uber and Lyft offer the potential to get cities moving, improve quality of life and reduce emissions. But this will only happen if new and traditional mobility services can be integrated to make a more attractive offering that finally persuades drivers out of their cars, write Greg Archer and Yoann Le Petit.

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