Could ‘robo-taxis’ answer our traffic woes?

Fleets of driverless “robo-taxis” could create a future Auckland where roads aren’t choked with vehicles.

The catch is we have to be prepared to share the taxis with strangers and regulation may be needed to ensure robo-taxis support, not replace, public transport.

The Preparing cities for a transportation revolution workshop being held in several centres around the country aims to start the conversation around what transport planners and policy makers need to consider.

Trip Convergence co-founder Paul Minett told attendees transport is at a crossroads. Companies are investing heavily in automated transport and it’s not a case of if, but when, cities need to prepare for driverless vehicles.

Renault revealed a concept robo-taxi in March and General Motors claims it will launch a ride-sharing service in 2019 with driverless Chevy Bolts. Ford has plans for a service starting in 2021.

“Imagine 100,000 robo-taxis in Auckland so people don’t need to drive.”

Minett argues the right incentives can reduce the number of cars on the urban roads by encouraging the use of robo-taxis over private cars. This would free up space currently held as car parks and allow cities to increase in density rather than sprawl into green field areas.

“Imagine 100,000 robo-taxis in Auckland so people don’t need to drive.”

Minett’s vision includes people sharing robo-taxis to reach public transport hubs. Realising this vision would require people change entrenched habits of private vehicle use.

So far car-pooling initiatives in New Zealand haven’t been an overwhelming success but the attitude to sharing rides is shifting in some markets where incentives are used.

Uber provides ride-pooling in several countries, offering customers a cheaper price to get to their destination if they are prepared to share the car with other people going in the same direction. The company said San Francisco customers chose the cheaper pooled option 50 percent of the time.

Another Uber service now available in Sydney offers an even cheaper ride if passengers are prepared to walk to a pick-up spot and then pool with other passengers.

This type of service has the potential to reduce public transport use and if the ride company engaged in predatory pricing could result in bus users switching to shared taxis, with no reduction in congestion.

Minett sees an opportunity for cities to collaborate with robo-taxi fleet providers for a win-win outcome.

He asked attendees: “What do you wish you had thought of before the first 1000 robo-taxis arrived?”

“The reality is most people are going to keep their car, as they do today, even if they mix and match car use with other ways of getting around."

Ideas discussed included a requirement for companies to share data with cities so ‘Mobility as a service' apps could help commuters plan journeys which mix robo-taxis with bus or train services and to introduce a way to charge fleet owners for road use to replace revenue lost through a reduction in parking revenue.

Minett suggested a license system could be introduced where robo-taxi fleet owners pay for kilometres travelled. Incentives could be given for trips with multiple occupants, or trips which start or end at a public transport hub and penalties could be used to deter empty cars.

Attendees at the Auckland workshop included staff from Auckland Transport, the Automobile Association, and traffic engineers from a range of private companies, including Beca, who is hosting the workshops.

Ministry of Transport manager of strategic policy and innovation Richard Cross will attend the Wellington workshop. He said the Ministry is already looking at what can be done to gain benefits from the autonomous vehicles while mitigating any risks.

“In conjunction with the New Zealand Transport Agency, the Ministry of Transport has commissioned research from Waikato University to help us understand the public’s readiness for self-driving vehicles, car-sharing and ride-sharing schemes, and the social impacts of these.”

Cross said some policy is under development. Unlike other countries, New Zealand has no rules which would stop driverless cars using the roads at present.

“The Ministry of Transport is also developing a policy and regulatory plan for connected and autonomous vehicles, which will identify when action needs to be taken to enable the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles in New Zealand,” he said.

Automobile Association principal advisor Barney Irvine said he didn’t think the rise of robo-taxis will threaten the Association's business model.

“The reality is most people are going to keep their car, as they do today, even if they mix and match car use with other ways of getting around. We might see less car use for commuting and more use in the weekend.

“We’re certainly expecting to see some changes in the patterns of ownership and usage of vehicles, that is going to present some threat depending on how long it takes for things to change but there’s also going to be opportunities. We’re certainly not feeling anxious about it.”

Irvine said he expected to see the introduction of autonomous technology in 10 to 20 years in tourist areas, or on university grounds but said "no one knows" when urban transport will fundamentally change.

"There are just too many variables."

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