News State New South Wales ‘Driverless vehicles will fix Sydney’s transport mess’

‘Driverless vehicles will fix Sydney’s transport mess’

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Sydney commuters have complained of serious train delays over the last week. Photo: Getty
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Policymakers around the world are looking for ways to make our cities and communities more liveable. Dealing with traffic congestion is one of their top priorities.

Sydney, long envious of Melbourne’s trams, is currently ripping up CBD streets and laying down tracks for a light rail network. Yet traditional trams are so 20th century. Yes, it was a big mistake getting rid of them 50 years ago. But building new fixed surface transport systems in the impending era of autonomous vehicles is possibly a bigger mistake. In any case, rather than installing tracks and overhead electrical wiring we could have battery-powered trams using GPS or in-ground guidance systems using wireless technology.

Sydney Olympic Park is currently testing a driverless shuttle bus. Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota demonstrated its e-Palette – a fully-automated battery-electric concept vehicle capable of carrying people and goods.

Australians are second only to the US in our preference for cars and our resistance to attempts to persuade us to further embrace mass public transport. Understanding how autonomous vehicles will actually operate is a prerequisite to determining how we best incorporate them into the smart cities and communities of the future. We can wait for things to happen, or we can start the planning now.

Sydney Olympic Park is currently testing a driverless shuttle bus.
Sydney Olympic Park is currently testing a driverless shuttle bus. Photo: Transport NSW

Meanwhile, Sydney Trains announced 36 rail services would be cancelled through peak hour on Monday due to staff shortages after a week of chaos on the system.

Instead of large overcrowded trains, buses and trams running on fixed routes, a fleet of smaller autonomous vehicles will offer an appealing and more efficient alternative. A computerised reservations system will devise bespoke routes, picking up and setting down unrelated people along the way. The transport system will thereby accommodate passengers’ needs rather than passengers having to conform to predetermined and inflexible routes and schedules.

In future we’ll need to get over the concept of everyone owning their own car. Some will of course, but many – especially people living in our more densely populated inner suburbs – will question this when other convenient and affordable options exist. The biggest hourly cost in running a taxi is the driver. When that expense is eliminated the increasingly proliferous ‘ride share’ economy will blossom and prices will fall.

Of course, we’ll still need mass transport systems. However, relying on them as we have in the past and in the manner we have in the past only guarantees we exacerbate the problems we face right now. Yes, it’s early days and if you can’t see where this will ultimately lead then at least it should be clear that the opportunities and the options to rethink things are enormous.

An overall decrease in the number of privately owned vehicles would deliver numerous benefits: fewer public carparks, fewer garages in high-rise apartment blocks just for starters. It’s also pretty well acknowledged that the road toll will significantly decrease as we take more and more humans out from behind the controls.

Yet, here we are in 2018 still thinking like we did 100 years ago. In many ways our inability to envisage more innovative solutions to our transport points to a greater risk. Will we fail to actively embrace the smarter use of technology in reshaping our communities and making them more liveable in the 21st century?

Laurie Patton is the inaugural CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association, the not-for-profit peak body representing people and organisations spearheading moves to make our communities more liveable, more sustainable and more technologically empowered.

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