The autonomous vehicle: the reasons for the buzz

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Posted on 23.09.22
Mobility insights
Véhicule autonome

Since the early 2010s, interest in autonomous vehicles (AVs) has grown tremendously. Both traditional car manufacturers (Ford, Toyota) and new players (Tesla, Waymo) have invested billions of dollars in technical developments. Why is this technology getting more and more credit from the world’s biggest companies?

This article is based on the research of Félix Carreyre, PhD Candidate at VEDECOM.

The business model can be interesting

For car manufacturers, autonomous vehicles represent an attractive business model and the possibility of achieving their main goal: profit. Indeed, a fleet of autonomous cabs would allow them to reduce the costs of a mobility service, since the question of the drivers’ salary no longer arises. Moreover, taxi/TNC (Transport Network Company or ride-sharing company) rates would also be cheaper without the cost of the driver.

Beyond reducing costs, how can they make a profit? By charging a fee every time a user takes one of their driverless cabs.

Autonomous vehicle development could have many advantages

These fleets would replace conventional cars and allow: 

  • To offer a new mobility service for people without a driver’s license or who cannot drive (elderly people, people with reduced mobility…). 
  • To reduce the number of cars on the road while meeting the same demand for mobility.
  • To free up parking spaces in city centers due to the reduced number of vehicles needed in a fleet as well as the possibility for autonomous cars to park outside busy areas.

This could also apply to public transport: 30-40% of a bus’s overall operational costs come from driver costs. The metro has already switched to autonomous technology for faster rides.

In terms of road safety, an autonomous vehicle could be a safer travel option than a human driving a conventional car.

This comes from the idea that 90% of car accidents are due to human errors, errors that a computer could prevent. As autonomous vehicles are still in testing, this is mostly a hypothesis. However, it can be considered that AVs should not be allowed by the authorities and/or the public if they are not at least equal to the average human driving capabilities.

Increased comfort for passengers and lower costs for people traveling by public transport?

To assess the future impacts of AVs on society, researchers have run mobility simulations, particularly in urban areas. 

We must note that these simulations run 4 times more operational indicators than environmental ones (such as greenhouse gas emissions or local pollution). Some examples of indicators: 

  • Travel time per person (TT)
  • Fleet size (FS)
  • Vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT)

According to the results, if driverless cabs were to replace private cars, VKT (vehicle kilometers traveled) would increase by +23%, TT (travel time per person) by +17%, but it could reduce FS (fleet size) by -17%

If these driverless cabs were shared by different passengers, these results would be improved: VKT would only increase by +6%, TT by +20% and FS would be reduced by -55%.The increase in time and distance traveled could be a consequence of increased comfort for drivers or reduced costs for people traveling by public transport.

The potential risk of rebound effect

We must be careful about the benefits promised by this technology. Indeed, we talk about reducing the number of vehicles on the road, travel time, congestion… but the simulations mentioned above also show that the adoption of this technology could generate negative and unwanted externalities. 

Since most of the simulations take place in urban areas, increases in VKT (vehicle kilometers traveled) and TT (travel time per person) could have major impacts on traffic congestion and on all emissions generated during mobility. 

There’s the example of Uber: their service is easy to use, which has led to regular consumption of the latter and therefore to a higher use of the car, not decreasing the number of vehicles in circulation. The same pattern could potentially be repeated with driverless cabs.