Of driverless cars and passengerless trains (libdemvoice.org)

Driverless cars may not be quite as revolutionary as the 19th century spread of the railway, but there are huge benefits coming into view. The sooner we can deliver them, and the sooner policymakers can take them into account, the better – with mixed results for railways.

To be conservative, let’s imagine it’s 2044 – 30 years from now. We will look back at the idea of people customarily directing 1 tonne cars at speed as madness. Millions of lives will be saved worldwide through autonomous driving and communication between cars.

Even more bizarre will be the idea that we spent so many wasted hours at the steering wheel pushing pedals and knobs. Instead, you can work, talk, read, play, watch TV, sleep and more – all in redesigned interiors.

With increased safety, synchronised driving and smart navigating, driverless cars will be faster too. But they will also be more energy efficient, with slipstreaming and efficient driving – on top of the move to electric cars.

Perhaps the biggest transformations will stem from a reduction in car ownership. Many will still want or need their own car, filled with their own stuff. But for many, driverless cars will be interchangeable. They will simply electronically call for a car (perhaps specifying its features) and one will arrive to pick them up. Young people in particular (if allowed) will be able to travel by road just as easily and cheaply as anyone else.

With shared use, the stock of cars will be used far more efficiently, with fewer vehicles needed. And as they can come to you, they won’t need to take up prime space in town centres and can be stored together as densely as possible elsewhere. They will also facilitate road pricing – meaning fairer taxes and further reduced congestion.

Shared and efficient use of vehicles, energy efficiency, reduced insurance costs, reduced pollution, no drivers, and the smaller number of components in a driverless, electric car, mean that road travel will in time be considerably more affordable.

Will the cost and experience of train travel improve in the same way? No. I’ve come to suspect that rail may in general be just inherently less economical and less convenient than cars and buses (even accounting for any environmental harm). Driverless cars will widen the gap even further.

Neither renationalisation nor increased competition would make a huge difference. And increased public subsidy is a false economy and one of the most pro-rich forms of public spending. These are the usual political debates. But what would actually make a difference are: 1) more flexible working to let people avoid peak hours; and 2) ending the various cross-subsidies from popular to non-profitable elements of the network. The least heavily used 50% of stations together account for just 3.6% of traffic, for example, yet train operating companies are allowed no latitude to reduce costs for the vast majority.

Shared driverless cars will help kill off slow, local trains and buses without disempowering their current users, while other train routes – such as the most-used commuter trains – will be helped by the removal of those cross-subsidies. Long-distance, high-speed rail can play an important role too: driverless cars won’t be able to go the 200 miles from Manchester to London in 68 minutes (as HS2 would), and people would be more free to switch from car to train and back for longer journeys. But for many, unsubsidised trains will struggle to beat the convenience, experience and low cost of driverless road travel.

The current government rightly “wants to make the UK a world centre for the development of driverless cars”. But we must do more to explore the possibility of such radical transformations, and the questions and opportunities they raise. Not least: will current road and rail policies make sense in 30 years? Will society allow driverless cars? And – ultimately – will we allow cars with drivers?

Originally published at http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-of-driverless-cars-and-passengerless-trains-39607.html

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