Transport of the future

As our population grows, we are demanding ever more performance from our transport system. Could electric vehicles and autonomous driving offer the solutions needed to profoundly change our transport infrastructure?

Prosperity has been increasing in Switzerland for decades – we are used to continually improving our lives and moving around the world ever more freely. Switzerland has invested a healthy proportion of its prosperity in extensive road and railway networks, and keeps expanding them. At the same time, people have acquired increasingly bigger and faster cars, allowing them to move around at relatively high speeds.

Prosperity is challenging our transport system

However, prosperity has also made people more demanding and less patient. Less patient, especially during the daily rush hours because they want to travel from A to B as fast as possible. And the demands do not stop at transport: our living space should be as quiet, as green, and as affordable as possible; traffic should not spoil the scenery nor harm the environment. Shopping increasingly means not going to the shops in person – rather, the post office, DHL, UPS, and other delivery services are bringing a growing amount of parcels and goods to our doorsteps

In short: we are demanding ever more performance from our transport system. The anticipated growth in population will only add to this demand. At the same time, Switzerland, like all other highly developed nations, has set itself huge climate targets. Carbon dioxide emissions are to be reduced massively in order to stop the looming climate change. This requires a fundamental structural change in energy supply.

Prof. Dr. Kay W. Axhausen, Institute for Transport Planning and Systems, ETH Zurich

How can we relieve the transport system?

In this context, electric mobility (e-mobility) appears to be the solution that would safeguard our mobility and prosperity into the future. However, e-mobility on its own will not change the transport system’s performance. In fact, it will jeopardise the current financing of our transport infrastructure: electric cars will put an end to fuel tax revenues, which are now used to fund the maintenance and expansion of roads and transport systems. In addition, e-mobility solutions do not yet live up to our standards of comfort and accessibility.

Uber and other so-called ‘transport network companies (TNCs)’ show how positively people respond to new mobility concepts, but it is easy to forget that the demand for these transport services is currently driven by subsidised prices and a simultaneous increase in capacity. In other words, TNCs will not result in fewer but in more vehicles on the roads. And without subsidies, they are not even likely to survive.

Car-sharing solutions also do not contribute to an easing of traffic, although they do provide more people with access to vehicles and thus often make a second family car redundant and thereby save additional vehicle-kilometres. Car sharing is also cheaper than owning a car. It is a mobility solution with scope to grow.

The physical limits of transportation

The growing demand for mobility contrasts with very slow growth in the supply of transport infrastructure and services. The capacity of existing networks and services has clear upper limits. One seat can only transport one person at a time, one metre of motorway can only ever be used by one vehicle at a time, and a traffic junction can only be crossed by one bicycle at a time. Add to this the safety space required between vehicles. Road users participants have to curb their travelling speeds accordingly and also have to accept high traffic density as well as delays in their daily schedules. Besides, transport systems that are strained to such a degree are vulnerable to disruption – even a small fluctuation can push the system beyond its capacity limits.

Is the ‘tech fix’ the right solution?

Our demands and existing solution approaches are blocking each other. In such a situation, society inevitably conjures up the so-called ‘tech fix’: a new technology is meant to solve problems that were caused by an existing technology. The history of mobility is in fact one giant tech fix. First, it was the railway (from 1840), then the electric trams (from 1870), and then the cars (from 1885) that had to solve the transport problems of the time: slow and expensive inland navigation, the horsepower that horses were lacking, not enough oats for all the horses needed. This tech fix simultaneously created ample scope for societal development.

Ultimately, it is always us humans – our behaviour, our decisions, our demands – that create the traffic realities we are faced with.

Autonomous vehicles – the next milestone in the history of mobility

No wonder then that we are now again pinning our hopes on technological solutions. Which is also a convenient way of avoiding dealing with our own contribution to the root of the problem. Ultimately, it is always us humans – our behaviour, our decisions, our demands – that create the traffic realities we are faced with. We could change our cherished habits and move about less. Or we could raise toll charges that would decrease the number of vehicles on our roads. We could work from home in order to relieve commuter traffic.

The proponents of the current tech fix notion expect new development options from it for society. The trend that is most ardently promoted concerns autonomous vehicles. Whether they move on rail tracks, in the air, or on the roads, from small drones through to automated trucks – autonomous vehicles have an electric engine.

When the first vehicles of this type will be in circulation is anyone’s guess. But it is estimated that the first market-ready models could be in use from the 2030s. What is uncontested is that these vehicles will substantially change the traffic realities we know today. And above all, they will provide transportation options to all those members of our society that have been excluded up to now: children, the elderly, and people without a driving permit. The main reason for this is that autonomous cars will be cheaper to operate than today’s cars. Add to this a more convenient ride because nobody’s attention is being taken up by the actual driving.

The dream of flying

Apart from the autonomous vehicles for passenger transportation, there is another vision: flying cars and underground freight traffic. It’s a fabulous idea to be able to move the car from the garage right up into the air. But of course it’s not realistic. It is not clear if the actual air space between buildings and aeroplanes would be big enough to accommodate the transportation of people and goods between a limited amount of available take-off and landing points. On the other hand, projects for an underground freight transport system, such as Switzerland’s ‘Cargo Sous Terrain’ project, have the potential to provide sustainable capacities and solutions for fast-growing freight movements. They could do their share in relieving passenger traffic of trucks.

The tech fix with autonomous vehicles can potentially increase the capacity of the road network. If road capacity increases, greater speeds and better mileage become possible. This would allow us to meet transport and velocity demands while postponing the discussion about road tolls for another few years. In the long term, however, autonomous vehicles will not be able to replace such toll charges

Autonomous vehicles will challenge our social order

The demands for autonomous cars (ACs), population growth, and prosperity are an explosive combination. Together they challenge the social order we know.

  • Ownership: Who will own these autonomous vehicles and who will operate them? Individuals, car-sharing organisations, or taxi companies?
  • Infrastructure: Should we charge for the use of roads? And if so, who will be liable for these costs? Or should we build new, underground roads?
  • Public transport: What role will public transport play in future?
  • Public space: If ACs do indeed require less parking space, will we make more room for cars or for pedestrian walkways?
  • Social participation: How will it affect our lives if more people become mobile?

Up to now, road users have been given free choice. Will this still be possible with autonomous vehicles, or will we need stringent guidelines and regulations? In order to make autonomous vehicles a realistic option, we need to fundamentally change our existing transport system. The question is – do we want to live with the implications of this tech fix? It’s a decision we have to make today.

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