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The future of personal transport

Google, already ubiquitous in our digital lives, could soon have a major influence on how we travel. Having already done hundreds of thousands of miles in conventional cars modified to drive themselves, the company has recently talked of its intention to produce driverless vehicles from scratch.  This is yet another illustration of the importance of data handling and computing power; all the mechanical parts of the vehicle exist already, but the breakthrough is replacing a human driver by an autonomous computer.

This has the potential simply to transform personal transport and effectively end the distinction between private and public transport. Not that this would happen overnight, nor necessarily using anything which looks like today’s cars but, as a way forward which overcomes the disadvantages of the current transport network, it takes some beating.

Consider the current situation. To get from A to B conveniently over short to medium distances, a car is more often than not the preferred option. Even allowing for hold-ups, it is generally the quickest door-to-door journey. Ignoring the cost of owning the car – which in practice most people do – it is usually the least expensive choice. Also, taking account of these essentially fixed costs, the price per kilometre decreases with the distance travelled, which is not generally true of any competing option.

There are people who argue that public transport is the way forward and must be encouraged. In densely populated areas, it can work quite well. The London Underground and Paris and Brussels Metro systems are good examples of efficient mass transport in cities. But they come at a price: tunnelling is enormously expensive even before the cost of rolling stock and running the system is taken into account. The Tube is one of the busiest urban transport systems in the world, carrying over a billion passengers each year, but still requires public subsidy.

London buses carry more than twice this number of passengers, covering a large number of direct routes, but that represents nearly half of all bus journeys in England. The London urban area covers about 1,600 square kilometres and has a population nearing 10 million. This is nearly 20% of the country’s population in less than 2% of the total land area, making half of all bus journeys.

This very clearly illustrates the key point that public transport can be a very effective way of getting around in large cities, but is rather less suited to less densely populated areas. It is likely that a good proportion of the other 50% of English bus journeys are made in other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. Rural bus services are, by and large, poor, poorly used and highly subsidised.

Trains seem on the face of it to be an efficient way of getting large numbers of people in and out of cities to work. But their problem is their inflexibility. They can travel only on pre-designated routes, on tracks which are expensive to lay and have a low utilisation factor. For much of the day, trains run with rather few passengers, however crowded they may be in the rush hour. Trains can also be good for making city to city journeys. However, they are relatively expensive either to use or to subsidise (sometimes both) and, unlike roads, most of the length of track is empty even at peak times.

We are faced currently with a choice between flexible travel by private car, albeit with the disadvantages of road congestion and risk of accident (in the EU there were still 26,000 road fatalities in 2013, with an estimated four permanently disabling injuries and eight serious injuries for every death) and the constraints and costs of public transport (good for cities, generally less so for out-of-town journeys).

Consider, then, the possibilities offered by autonomous vehicles. These could have all the flexibility of the current generation of cars, but with built-in safety. Google’s current plan is to build low-speed (maximum 25mph) electric cars for use in urban areas. They would be guided by a combination of cameras, laser and radar sensors with routes determined using the company’s own map database. Essentially, this would be like letting your satnav take over driving, with the ability to avoid cars, pedestrians and other obstacles.

It is not too great a leap of imagination to think of these vehicle replacing private cars, some buses and even taxis. They could themselves be privately owned but, for this sort of use, there could equally well be a large pool of them stationed around the city, in a similar way to the bikes already available for hire in London, Paris and elsewhere.

The big win would be to control these cars en masse on the road via GPS or similar technology. This would make better use of road space, although the real benefits would only come if essentially all the traffic on the road was controlled in this way. Making the transition could be tricky, but certainly not impossible, with perhaps some routes reserved entirely for autonomous vehicles initially.

What could help the network even more would be the replacement of cars and trains on commutes and inter-city travel. This would make the best use of existing transport corridors – both roads and rails – and it should not be beyond the wit of man to devise loops or sidings where empty vehicles could be boarded before joining the main stream of traffic.

There is still a long way to go before these ideas could become a reality, and maybe they never will in these simplistic embodiments. But the key point is that modes of transport will certainly develop further. This time next century, it is inconceivable that we will simply be trying to manage journeys and congestion better using cars and trains which are just mechanically advanced versions of current ones. Google may not have all the answers, but it has now given us a hint about what the future might look like. 

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