google autonomous car

An optimists view of the future sustainability of personal transport

Our view of the future of personal transport is very optimistic and we feel it will largely happen without government intervention and as the result of market forces. I believe the advent of autonomous driverless ride sharing vehicles will have a profound impact on our lives within 20 years – and will be as disruptive as smartphones and social media have been in the last decade. Ultimately this may lead to a 70% improvement in the energy efficiency of terrestrial transportation, largely stop vehicular pollution, reduce congestion, free up our commuting time for more useful purposes and generally make our lives much much better.

First, some simple facts

  1. Cars spend 95% of their lives parked, fulfilling no useful function, at the same time depreciating and occupying real-estate (parking space). The average car travels 7.900 miles per year, 21 miles a day. 57% of people commute by car an average of 9.9miles but only 5% as a passenger
  2. Commuting by car is a largely unproductive use of our time
  3. Cars are responsible for pollution, estimated to kill 30,000 people in the UK each year, and a further 1,700 through accidents, including 180,000 injuries
  4. Transport is responsible for 38% of the UK’s CO2 emissions

The solution to all these problems will be autonomous battery powered electric vehicles, largely operated by car sharing organisations like Uber.

To illustrate the impact of autonomous shared driverless car lets imagine the future where they exist, and provide some ballpark statistics, based on an example scenario:

  1. Let’s say we take a group of people who live in Saltford and Batheaston and who currently drive alone 9 miles to work across central Bath in opposite directions
  2. Let’s says the commute takes 30 minutes, and that 3 of the commuters leave Saltford for Batheaston at 7.30am, and another 3 at 8.30am. 3 commuters leave Batheaston at 8.00am for Saltford and another 3 at 9.00am. All 12 of these commutes could be serviced by a single autonomous ridesharing battery powered vehicle travelling back and forward picking people up on demand as it goes
  3. The implications are profound:
    1. A 33% reduction in congestion, as a result of 3 people sharing cars, and a similar reduction in energy consumption
    2. A more than 90% reduction in car ownership as a result of 12 cars being replaced by one, freeing up significant amounts of road space from parking
    3. A 100% reduction in car pollution from using electric vehicles
    4. A 10% increase in productivity, freeing up 1 hour per day of each commuter’s time during the commute to do other things rather than concentrating on driving
    5. Older, disabled and young people will be much more mobile

There are a lot of caveats to this scenario, but I believe because of inevitable market forces that this will happen within the next 10 to 30 years, and will be disruptive as smart phones and the internet have been in the last decade. I do however wonder, why the government continues to assume an increase in car ownership and congestion in its planning and ignores the potential impact of autonomous technology. Personally I feel the future of sustainable personal transport is bright, the potential for significant reductions in energy consumption, pollution and congestion from transport are huge.

Transition Bath

Some background information


The UK Government predicts under all scenarios that car ownership will grow

The UK government predicts the following growth in traffic:

 Graph of uk government forecast for future transport growth

This is clearly wrong if the model of autonomous ridesharing I have outlined above takes off. I would side with some of the points put forward by Michel Tirade of Hertz in this bbc article, and feel the government modelling is likely to turn out to be completely wrong if the 66% reduction in mileage outlined in my scenario above occurs.

This government miscalculation will have a profound impact on assumptions made in planning for parking requirements for new developments, space will be wasted on vehicular parking which will no longer be needed in 20 years’ time. My scenario above suggests a more than 90% reduction in car ownership, and therefore parking.

Naysayers say “I don’t believe autonomous vehicles with ever replace humans”

My counter argument to this is market forces. First of all, almost all car manufacturers believe fully antonymous vehicles will exist within the next 10 years. New disruptive entrants to the market like Google and Apple will actively force change. If car producers fail to deliver autonomous cars, they will fail to exist, so they have no choice but to invest is this new technology. Why would Google and Apple invest in such technology as they are currently doing, if they did not think it was achievable and felt there was no market opportunity?

Evidence through predictions:

Company Semi-autonomous date Fully-autonomous date







General Motors














Even if you don’t believe the timescales on these predictions, you have to assume these manufacturer’s statements have some weight. The reason I think autonomous vehicles are inevitable is because of market forces – at some point if autonomous ridesharing happens and if a manufacturer doesn’t have a solution then they will no longer be able to sell their products.

The systems for autonomous driving will add to vehicle cost, but this will be mitigated by government regulation requiring all vehicles to support many of the active collision avoidance technologies of autonomous cars to meet safety regulation whether the car is fully autonomous or not. The increasing market volume of such cars, whose additional cost will be largely driven by investment in software should significantly reduce additional vehicle costs.


The biggest risk with my predictions is that ride sharing for autonomous vehicles doesn’t take off.

If you look at the scenario, that you exit your home in the morning, press a button on your smartphone and summon an autonomous vehicle, what incentives do you have to share the vehicle? The primary incentive must be cost, for example in the commuting example from Saltford to Batheaston outlined above, if you assume a car costs 25p/mile to run, would you prefer to pay £1,000 for your annual commute for sole occupancy or £350 for shared occupancy? I suspect without government intervention there might be a variety of answers somewhere in between the 2 extremes, so perhaps rather than an average of 3 people sharing a car it might only be 2? Personally, I would always share, I am happy sharing on public transport, and only drive myself by car when I can’t make the same journey conveniently and economically by alternative transport. As momentum builds in a ridesharing market the probability of being able to conveniently share a vehicle going in the same direction increases.

For ad hoc journeys, on infrequently used routes there would be some expectation that you would need to switch vehicles at some point during a journey to maximise the utilisation of the ride sharing vehicles, much like we do today with public transport.

Another barrier to the efficiency of this system would be competition between providers, if you contracted your personal transport to a single provider, the opportunities for sharing would be reduced. This could be solved if the market for such services as constructed by government was well designed, but given the government’s poor record with our disparate railway companies this is a significant risk. There is the additional risk too much competition between providers who continue to operate uneconomically but without exiting the market might actually increase congestion in the short term, in the way Uber drivers have increased congestion in London, or Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of buses in the 1980s’ lead to perverse scenarios. An ideal scenario would be an optimal number of market operators, enough to provide competition but few enough not to present excess market capacity.

Will people still drive or be able to drive?

Probably not, and if so only for pleasure. There are increasing trends for our urbanised young population not learning to drive. I would also argue that you wouldn’t choose to drive your car to work if there was an alternative. Insurance costs for an autonomous vehicle would be agnostic of age or driving record, and would be held by the service provider. So, people would only drive for pleasure, and if this was the only point of driving, how many people would bother learning to drive on the road if alternative more interesting pursuits were available?

Naysayers say “Electric vehicles will never replace fossil fuel vehicles”

Somewhat orthogonal to this discussion of antonymous cars is the issue of whether they will be electric. My view is that electric vehicles will come to dominate the car market over the next 20 years. It will be a slow transition but with advancing technology and new vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 with 200+ mile ranges priced similarly to equivalent petrol vehicles the transition is inevitable. It would appear both Apple and Google will only offer electric versions of their vehicles. In the short term low petrol/gas prices will slow the transition, but governments will be under increasing pressure to ban polluting internal combustion engines in urban areas, so regulation might also force the change.

What are the implications for our planning system?

At the moment our planning system assumes growth in car ownership and vehicles miles – this is probably a false premise – particularly after 2025, Therefore, I think we should be planning for the post 2025 scenario of fewer cars and restricting the real estate allocated to parking on new developments.

Transition Bath have been asking for more electric charging points in Bath, but this is a short term solution. In the scenario where autonomous cars dominate, and they are not individually owned why would you want to charge them locally? Once they have finished moving people around for the day, they can drive themselves off to a convenient out of town location to charge themselves ready for the next day.

What other implications are there?

The answer is many, and most are disruptive:

  1. Public transport: Will buses, trains and taxis exist in a new world of ridesharing? Economically a significant cost of public transport is labour, if that labour is to compete with autonomous cars will those cars be professionally driven? My feeling is that they won’t be able to compete directly, it is likely that for longer journeys consolidation of ridesharing, to save on costs might lead to the technology being developed for cars being reused in buses and coaches, reducing the need to employ a driver. Trains might only continue to exist only to provide fast long distance transport, and they however run the risk of being replaced by much faster more efficient Hyperloop technology. Taxi and bus drivers are likely to become redundant, there will however be a new employment market in servicing and supporting autonomous vehicles.
  2. Walking and cycling: a significant reduction in vehicular traffic, greater safety and lower pollution should lead to more space on existing roads for cyclists and pedestrians, and therefore you might expect a growth in these modes of transport. A counter argument might be that the ease of use of the new autonomous vehicles might make us lazy and result in less cycling and walking.
  3. Car manufacturers: with car sharing and reuse the number of vehicles on the road could drop by as much as 90%, weighed against this is the greater utilisation of each of these vehicles which will do many more miles each day. Overall, the implication is the production of cars required in mature markets might reduce by as much as 70% – which suggests a profound shake out of the car manufacturing business?
  4. Improved productivity, more leisure time: for commuters autonomous cars will free up time from driving increasing productivity and potentially providing more leisure time. It will also make long distance journeys more flexible and pleasurable.

Will fully autonomous vehicles actually happen?

The answer is yes, eventually, but the timescales are difficult to predict. The estimates from most car manufacturers that their products will be ready by 2020 are probably optimistic, but even if they miss their targets autonomous vehicles will be available long before 2030. Think internet, social media and smartphones – I suspect our knowledge of their future impact was largely unrecognised before they occurred, but with autonomous cars I think we can be much more confident about their delivery, but perhaps less about their potential profound impact on our lives.


I am optimistic about the future of personal transport, I only own a car for its current convenience -  the ability to walk out of my home and go anywhere I want, but I think keeping a car in my garage 23 hours a day is not a very efficient use of an expensive capital asset. Additionally, I look forward to a world where I don’t have to spend time driving and I don’t have the hassles of car ownership – their maintenance and associated costs.

My main question is how do we plan for the interim period before autonomous ridesharing electric vehicles become prevalent, and how long will that period be?

Climate change and declines in CO2 emissions from transport of up to 80% will be one of the many benefits of this disruptive change to our lives.



Posted in Electric Cars, Energy, Transport.