Electric e-cars. It’s enough to drive a Crow to drink.
Stone the crows! We are all set to stall. According to Infrastructure Australia, cities will stop as roads choke, with travel times increasing by 20 per cent on essential urban arteries in 15 years. The cost of congestion is already $13.7bn IA warns.[i] To deal with this, the agency proposes a regimen of responses, but governments generally like to keep solutions simple and promise more roads. In his Press Club pitch five days before the last election, Tony Abbott promised to, “build the roads that Australians need in order to live and to work better”. [ii]
But maybe we are about to see less disruption than transformation in the way we drive, which could reduce the need for ever-more extensive and expensive roads. The Saudi energy minister says the kingdom could stop using oil and export wind and solar generated electricity instead by mid century. Yes, the Saudis are contemplating getting out of oil exports, which has to say something about the future for transport. [iii]
Perhaps the Saudis fear electric engines, understandable if they do. Mass produced battery cars designed for the 75km twice daily commute are a while off, if only because people in lower income outer suburbs will not be able to afford to replace cars with what will initially be high-cost electric alternatives.[iv]
However, the small electric vehicle for inner city trips is economic already.[v] The problem is that being stuck in traffic is the same whatever your engine.
Which is where the driverless car is the deal. For high-density inner cities, two seat (plus bags) autonomous cabs will be more economic than buying, registering, insuring, servicing, fuelling and parking a car. Plus, with enough of them always on the go people will not need, or want, to drive thus freeing up parking lanes for through traffic.[vi]
As University of Wollongong infrastructure expert Gary Bowditch puts it: “Car ownership, garages and car parks would diminish as vehicles work more hours for someone else and earn more money.” [vii]
This sounds more practical for the CBD and Surry Hills than Castle Hill and Penrith, but there are a lot more Sydney-siders living in areas like the former than the latter when it come to traffic densities. The low cost always-available cab would surely suit people in Neutral Bay who want to go to Chatswood or those in Maroubra who need to nick up to Randwick, rather than driving themselves.
But, even in the burbs, solely self-drive or smart-assisted cars that respond to motorway command systems that set speeds for conditions and traffic flow will surely make driving less stressful and more efficient.[viii] In Perth, the motorist association suggests driverless cars are a solution to the city’s traffic growth.[ix] And the driverless minibus that picks passengers up at home and takes them all to the train, or the business park, would reduce traffic and tedium.[x]
Of course, it all depends on the technology and if the boosters are to be believed the future of self-drive is soon. Google’s driverless test cars are “a familiar sight” on Californian highways.[xi] Tesla announced in March that a software update sent to its cars’ computers will create an autopilot mode.[xii] And Nissan says it will have a car capable of driving itself on highways, but not suburban streets, in 2020.[xiii]
The question is will autonomous cars reduce overall traffic enough to improve productivity of the existing road network to the extent we don’t ever more-motorways? Certainly programs will be safer than people behind the wheel making roads safer and more efficient.[xiv] But population growth means more people moving from A to everywhere. Then, again, every driver delights in school holidays, when people not taking their kids to class makes commuting much easier. It does not take all that much to free up capacity. Maybe low-cost driverless buses and efficient traffic flows could save us billions. According to the NRMA, 5 per cent less traffic on a road increases speeds by 50 per cent.[xv]
The Crows are clueless on what could happen and no sane transport minister is going cancel infrastructure investment because of the promise of computerised cars and buses and electric autonomous mini-cabs. But then, again, whoever thought we would hear the Saudis talking about getting out of the oil business?
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[i] Mathew Dunckley and Jacob Saulwick, “$53bn congestion crunch looms warns Infrastructure Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 22
[iii] [iii] Pilita Clark, “Saudis eye phasing out of fossil fuels,” Australian Financial Review, May 23
[iv] Jago Dodson, “Electric vehicles won’t solve the suburbs’ transport woes,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 26 2013
[vii] Gary Bowditch, “Driverless cars light the road to Sydney’s future”, Australian Financial Review October 15 2013
[xi] David Williams, “Driverless delights: the autonomous car,” The Telegraph (London) January 9