Self-driving cars could make Sydney's WestConnex redundant

Self-driving cars could make Sydney's WestConnex redundant
Self-driving cars could make Sydney's WestConnex redundant

Driverless cars could be hitting our roads in as little as ten years, and futurist Dr. Angus Hervey thinks they will render large infrastructure projects such as Sydney's WestConnex redundant.

"I think the way a lot of people talk about the future of transport is quite short-sighted," Dr. Hervey told CyberShack. "They think that the answer is to build more roads or build more infrastructure, and what often happens is they miss the big technologies that are just around the corner."

Dr. Hervey says that the rise of autonomous cars will mean owning a personal vehicle will stop making sense for most people. Instead, he sees an increase in the uptake of ride-sharing services such as Uber, who will own the lion's share of self-driving cars. 9000 driverless cars operated by an Uber-like service could replace New York's entire fleet of taxis, according to Dr. Hervey. 

"All you do is pick up your phone, which effectively works as a transportation device, cause you just say 'I'd like to go from here to here,' and a robot car arrives and takes you to where you're going."

Even though services such as taxis and Uber means Australians can already choose not to own a car, Dr. Hervey says self-driving cars are a much more efficient solution. He said that despite the fact most people are only using their cars 4% of the time, the cost of car ownership is about USD$9,000 per year.

"When you've got cars that are being used say 70% to 80% of the time, your efficiencies go up quite drastically, and the cost of maintaining a fleet of cars like that come down. It means that for almost everyone with the exception of some very rich people who want to have cars as status symbols, or people who drive an incredible amount for their work, ownership is no longer necessary."

Hervey says that the average person's yearly transport spend could drop to as little as AUD$4,000 if they solely relied on automated car-sharing services.

Car-sharing services would also remove the need for parking; according to research conducted by Morgan Stanely, 30% of city traffic is vehicles looking for a place to park. 

"In a place like Sydney, you're looking at spending billions and billions of dollars on WestConnex, a whole new highway and more roads to connect the outer suburbs to the inner suburbs, and that’s supposed to be finished by 2023, and yet that's the same time driverless cars are coming online."

"So you're talking about much less cars on the road, and I don't think regulators and politicians even think about that. And what we're going to be left with is a huge tax bill for roads that aren't going to be used by our cars and I think that's crazy."

Dr. Hervey's ideas could be closer to reality than many think. Earlier this year, Uber announced a joint venture with Carneige Mellon University (CMU) to focus on research and development of autonomous driving technology.

“We are excited to join the community of Pittsburgh and partner with the experts at CMU, whose breadth and depth of technical expertise, particularly in robotics, are unmatched," said Jeff Holden, Uber's Chief Product Officer. "As a global leader in urban transportation, we have the unique opportunity to invest in leading edge technologies to enable the safe and efficient movement of people and things at giant scale."

Uber's news came shortly after reports claiming Google was building its own ride-sharing service in conjunction with its own autonomous car project.

"We're thinking a lot about how in the long-term, this might become useful in people's lives, and there are a lot of ways we can imagine this going," said Chris Urmson, the Director of Google's Self Driving project, during a conference call held as part of the Detroit auto show in January. “One is in the direction of the shared vehicle. The technology would be such that you can call up the vehicle and tell it where to go and then have it take you there."

High-end car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz has its own vision for the future of self-driving cars, suggesting that they will provide their owners with the two most important luxuries of the 21st century: time and privacy.

"Cars will turn into mobile homes in the very best sense of the word," said Dr. Dieter Zetsche, head of the Damier AG's Mercedes-Benz division at a keynote given at CES this year. "They will be exclusive 'cocoons on wheels' that enable people to do exactly what they want or need to do. This is the re-definition of automotive luxury."

But while Dr. Zetsche is confident that Mercedes will be able to make self-driving cars commercially viable, he says there are still challenges to be faced when it comes to making automatic vehicles ubiquitous.

"Whom are we going to hold responsible in the unlikely event that an autonomous driving car crashes? Or how should the car decide on ethic aspects, if an accident is really unavoidable?" asked Dr. Zetsche.

Nonetheless, Dr. Zetsche said he was optimistic about the future of self-driving cars, stating that the relevant technologies are rapidly advancing, and more importantly, customers are beginning to trust them.

"The time is right to think about the car of the future."

Even if the self-driving car of the future is still a while away, Dr. Hervey says it's important not to get hung up on exact timelines, citing Amara's Law.

"We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."

"I don't think it matters whether this technology is here in 10 years, 13 years or 17 years. [Driveless cars] are going to drastically alter the face of society. I think that the more people know about this, the more they're ready for it, the more they can take advantage of it, and the more they can avoid things like paying billions of dollars for roads that go to nowhere."

Dr. Angus Hervey will be participating in a discussion entitled "Reconnecting Sydney" as part of the Vivid Festival on June 4. He will also be chatting with Charlie Brown on Sunday's episode of Life & Technology on 2GB and NewsTalk 4BC.

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