In the 1800s the term automobile referred to a “vehicle that moves on its own”, i.e. without the help of horses. Only now, however, are we seeing the emergence of automobiles that are truly worthy of the term: driverless vehicles really do move on their own without humans at the helm, and many observers think they have a key role to play in our future.
Among the many studies that have focused on this issue, the report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) entitled “Electric Vehicles for Smarter Cities: The Future of Energy and Mobility” is one of the most recent and authoritative.
The report suggests that autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles can assist the large-scale penetration of electric mobility, increasing the benefits this brings in terms of sustainability and not only concerning the environment. The advantages will be particularly acute when the spread of these vehicles is combined with other innovations in the field of mobility, such as car sharing and mobility-as-a-service offers that provide integrated transport solutions on subscription.
The report also concludes that promoting the use of private electric vehicles is not sufficient for a truly sustainable mobility, as the focus needs to be on high-use vehicles that spend more time on the roads and cover greater distances. To sum up, it is more important to electrify the kilometres travelled than the number of vehicles.
In this context, the adoption of self driving vehicles could have a significant impact, given their flexibility and suitability for mass transport and the possibility to travel long journeys in urban areas, potentially for 24 hours a day. Furthermore, driverless vehicles, and especially those used for car sharing or mobility-as-a-service, can be charged according to a pre-established programme, which ensures better stability and flexibility for the grid when compared to privately driven EVs.
A different model for urban mobility
The transformation, according to the WEF report, will be lead by market mechanisms: in 2030, driverless cars available through mobility-as-a-service will cost 24.8 US cents per kilometre, compared to 43.5 US cents for the cost of private combustion fuel-powered vehicles, thus offering a saving of over 40%.
Consequently, consumer behaviour will change, bringing a revolution to the urban mobility model that we are used to today: the cities of the future, served by driverless vehicles, will be smarter and cleaner, with less traffic on the roads and less need to designate urban spaces for car parks.
According to a study conducted by Columbia University of New York, it would take only 18,000 autonomous vehicles to replace 120,000 private cars in Ann Arbor, a mid-sized university city in Michigan, with less cost to the user and increased efficiency.
Reducing urban traffic will not only bring long-term advantages for the climate, but in the medium term it will reduce atmospheric pollution, and, in the short term, will improve the quality of life for inhabitants who will benefit from quicker transfers around town and increased road safety.
While these projects may seem like science fiction, the technology already exists and several field experiments and trials are underway, most of which are the result of partnerships between car manufacturers and local authorities.
In 2018, the city of Rouen, with the region of Normandy and Renault, launched a mobility-as-a-service project involving 5 driverless vehicles, in the first instance with on-board human supervision, but with the intention to continue without once the safety of the technology has been assured and necessary legislation approved.
The city of Hamburg, together with Volkswagen, is working to promote driverless EVs and to further improve city traffic and air quality: the project includes the experimental use of driverless cars by the city’s inhabitants.
In the United States, General Motors is developing a free of charge service, making autonomous vehicles available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; at the moment available only to employees. Meanwhile, the state of California has begun to issue licences for the testing of autonomous vehicles in the Silicon Valley area as part of a pilot study.
What needs to be done
According to the WEF report, similar initiatives should be encouraged in other countries, while also developing legislation that will allow local authorities to implement them. This will happen shortly in China, where the government has announced that it will develop a countrywide policy for the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads.
At the same time, it is also necessary to explore in-depth how the advent of new vehicles will impact urban planning and infrastructures (for example, the deployment of charging stations). Driverless vehicles may move on their own, but their adoption and use on the roads of our cities still requires the oversight of human intelligence.