After more than a decade of testing, trials and research, it is now possible to hail a fully autonomous taxi in a few cities in the US, heralding arguably the most significant shift in land transportation since the first Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908. Waymo, the division of Google’s parent company Alphabet has initially focused its AV taxi service on San Francisco, California and Phoenix, Arizona cities in which conducted trials for its cars.
The next decade will see millions of driverless cars hit the roads, permanently altering how we commute, live and work. But so far, progress in AV technology is restricted to developed nations, mainly in North America, Europe and parts of Asia. In the Middle East, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are some of the few cities to make plans to accommodate driverless cars into the transport mix, beginning trial for driverless taxis in 2021 and 2023, respectively.
There is thus the risk that autonomous vehicles (AV) could lead to a new “digital divide” where only a few wealthy countries benefit from these advances.
Incidentally, developing nations stand to benefit more from autonomous mobility, whose citizens suffer disproportionately from road accidents, pollution, underinvestment in infrastructure and low household incomes.
The first significant benefit of AVs is a reduction in road fatalities. This scourge has plagued our roads since the first single-cylinder gasoline automobile hit a tree root, spun out of control before crashing into a hitching post in Ohio City, Ohio, in 1891, the first-ever recorded road accident. Research shows that 90 per cent of crashes are caused by human error. AVs will remove human error from the equation, which will help protect drivers, passengers and other road users.
Reducing the human cost
The Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) estimates that approximately 1.35 million people die in road crashes each year worldwide. An additional 20-50 million suffer non-fatal injuries, often resulting in long-term disabilities. Developing countries take the brunt of the human and economic costs associated with road crashes. More than 90% of all road fatalities occur in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately 60% of the world’s vehicles. Road crashes, the organization adds, may cost countries 2-8% of their annual gross domestic product. The ASIRT says, “the global epidemic of road crash fatalities and disabilities is gradually being recognized as a major public health concern.”
AVs will also significantly cut pollution and energy consumption. Most of the driverless vehicles being tested and in production are fully electric, which are much greener than their ICE equivalent. According to energy company EDF, each electric car on the roads can save an average of 1.5 million grams of CO2, per year, the equivalent of four return flights from London to Barcelona. Autonomous cars also use significantly less energy when driving than human drivers. Most energy in a vehicle is consumed when driving at high speeds, braking, and re-accelerating excessively. Self-driving cars eliminate all these through optimized driving styles, resulting in less energy consumption and fewer emissions.
Pollution is a severe health and economic issue in the developing world. For example, 1·67 million deaths were attributable to air pollution in India in 2019, accounting for 17·8% of the total deaths in the country, according to a report by the Lancet. Considering that vehicles are responsible for 27% of all pollution, transforming the transport sector could seriously dent global emissions and the health and economic costs associated with pollution. “Successful reduction of air pollution through state-specific strategies would lead to substantial benefits for both the health of the population and the economy,” researchers at the Lancet conclude.
Optimized car usage
Autonomous cars and shared mobility go hand in hand. Converting transportation from a capital expenditure to a subscription model would eliminate a hefty financial burden for consumers. Vehicle expenses are arguably the second-largest expense for most people after houses, yet most cars are parked over 90 per cent of the time. RMI, a US-based green energy nonprofit, estimates that not owning a car would save US consumers $1 trillion per year, with the lowest income benefiting the most.
Driverless cars also mean fewer cars per household. A single car can drop the kids off at school, take parents to work, and then return home to park itself until it’s time to pick them back up. This reduces the overall number of cars on the road and unnecessary overlapping trips that add to carbon emissions.
As urbanization accelerates, particularly in developing countries, rethinking how people commute is critical for our future cities. Vast areas in our cities are dedicated to driving and parking cars, leaving little to pedestrians, cyclists and parks. Driverless cars that can park away from the urban core and the promise of shared mobility will free up valuable real estate that can be converted into public spaces and green zones.
Road construction and maintenance are major line items for developing countries’ national budgets. As an example, Turkey spent more than $8.3 billion on road construction in 2019, according to research firm NationMaster. Reducing the number of cars on highways could lead to scarce national resources directed to other sectors such as health or education.
Developing countries should be part of the global conversation around autonomous mobility. By working within international organizations and partnerships, the world can ensure that the benefits of AV technology are distributed far and wide.