Home >opinion >Unintended consequences of autonomous transportation

We are on the threshold of a revolution in urban mobility. Three distinct streams of innovation are converging on a future that is significantly different from what any of us would have imagined possible even five years ago. 

On-demand transport solutions are insinuating themselves into our lives so rapidly that car ownership is no longer the aspirational choice of the upwardly mobile urban professional. There is no longer a need to own a car when other, more convenient transport options are easily available. At the same time, the internal combustion engine, which has served us well for decades, is on its way to being permanently replaced by the electric engine.

Governments in India and around the world have begun to set deadlines by when they intend to clear their roads of vehicles powered by fossil fuels and every significant automobile manufacturer is pouring substantial investments into R&D in the EV space. Investments in charging infrastructure being made by both the private and public sector is powering the spread of charging stations through our cities and innovations like swappable battery technology and fast charging are helping alleviate concerns of range anxiety. Finally, even though full autonomy is probably 5-10 years away, it is clear that autonomous vehicles are now not just a probable future but an inevitable one. 

When these three streams eventually converge, the way we move about our cities will stand transformed in much the same way as it did when horse-drawn carriages were first replaced by automobiles. Urban transport will be served by fleets of fully autonomous electric taxis, available on demand and at our doorstep. These individual vehicles will be managed centrally by algorithms that accurately assess demand and supply, map the most efficient routes to our destination and automatically manage batteries and vehicle maintenance to keep the car running optimally. But apart from these relatively obvious changes, there will be many more unseen implications to this converged future.

Full autonomy means that each car on the road will be able to communicate with every other vehicle, allowing them to avoid collisions and bring an end to motor vehicle accidents as we know them.

It will also mean allowing us to achieve greater levels of efficiency in road utilization as autonomous vehicles can drive closer to each other than would have been possible with human drivers who have to keep an appropriate distance from the car ahead of them to account for sudden braking—allowing us to squeeze more vehicles onto the road. The systems we use to cater to these fully autonomous transport solutions will require none of the complex traffic management facilities that we invest in today—there will no longer be a need for lanes, stopping distances, and signals—allowing us to radically rethink our traffic patterns and road behaviour. 

It will also mean the end of parking. An on-demand fleet of autonomous electric vehicles does not need to be parked during the day—they will drive from one job to the next, pausing only to recharge or swap out their batteries. This means that we will no longer need to allocate spaces in our cities for storing our personal vehicles while they sit idle—in our offices while we are at work or at home when we are asleep. As a result, we will free up an enormous amount of space in our urban areas that currently serve as parking lots for idle automobile assets.

Finally, all these factors will reduce the cost of transportation. Electricity is already cheaper than petrol but by getting rid of the driver, we will be able to remove wages from the cost of transportation, bringing down the overall price of the ride by nearly three-quarters. In addition, we will save on ancillary costs like insurance—now that motor vehicle accidents will have become a thing of the past—and maintenance—given that electric engines have fewer moving parts. Additionally, with algorithms to pre-cool and optimally charge our batteries and vehicles programmed to operate at the correct balance between speed and efficiency, we will achieve far greater mechanical efficiencies than we could have with humans behind the wheel. India has a unique opportunity to take the lead in this revolution, considering that automobile ownership as a percentage of its population is still less than 5%. Unlike other, more developed countries, we do not have to worry about redeploying investments in sunk automobile infrastructure like parking lots. Instead, with judicious regulation and forward-looking policies, we can leapfrog our cities directly into an on-demand autonomous future carving out dedicated lanes within our cities in which these vehicles can drive and building up the infrastructure for battery swapping and fast charging. 

This future is coming whether we like it or not. We’d do well to properly prepare ourselves for it.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between. His Twitter handle is @matthan.

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