Automation ‘could see car-usage increase’

Introduction of driverless cars on UK roads could increase overall car travel by up to 50% by 2050, new research carried out by academics at the University of Leeds has suggested.

The study, led by Professor Simon Shepherd and Professor Anthony May at Leeds’ Institute of Transport Studies (ITS) and researchers from Austria, used mathematical models to estimate the most likely and significant outcomes of having widely available autonomous vehicles, using Leeds as a case study.

Driverless cars could lead to an increase in vehicles on the road, researchers have suggested

As part of the research, the team looked at current studies available on electric vehicles, and how they could affect transport and land-use – drawing forward conclusions on how these could be impacted by the middle of the century.

Allied to a potential increase in the number of car journeys, as well as a significant rise in the average distance travelled by car, the models predicted a possible drop in public transport use, as well as falls in walking and cycling.

An increase in driving distance could also potentially lead to a rise in urban sprawl if residents are more willing to commute further into city centres, the researchers suggested.

Study co-author Professor Simon Shepherd said: “The trends we’ve uncovered raise concerns about whether the predicted surge in self-driving cars will align with hopes that future transport will be more sustainable. There are many issues that still need to be considered and scenario planning can help pin-point the important questions.

“For example if public transport is used less frequently could that lead to reductions or cancelation of services that many people depend on? Autonomous vehicles can search independently for a parking space, do cities need to rethink the current approach to parking management and layout? Are planned emission policies robust enough to protect the environment from such a large increase in overall car travel?

“Autonomous vehicles may one day outnumber cars driven by humans. Self-driving cars will completely change how people move around their communities and cities. Predictive assessments like this are essential in order to prepare policy makers and city planners for what a driverless future might look like.”

Research

Findings of the study were presented at the World Conference on Transport Research Society (WCTRS) in Beijing this month.

Study co-author Anthony May, Emeritus Professor of Transport Engineering, added: “Leeds was used as a case study but our scenarios could easily be applied to other cities to estimate the scale of change and adaptation needed for city communities.

“There certainly are potential benefits to a ‘driverless revolution’ – fewer accidents, making private travel more widely available – but we cannot overlook the looming consequences. More research needs to be done to better understand the full impact self-driving cars could have on our urban environment. Other factors such as an increase in car sharing or automating public transport could also have significant effect on how driverless cars shape the transport future.”

The research team is currently working to assess additional factors that could impact how driverless cars could affect cities.

Responding to the findings, Cllr Kim Groves Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said: “We are looking closely at emerging technologies as we consider meeting future transport needs and understanding the opportunities they present in meeting our aims of reducing congestion and the pollution that goes with it, as well as potential negative impacts.”