The Return of the Itinerant

By José Viegas

Autonomous road vehicles are attracting a lot of interest and  investment these days. It’s fair to predict that both the public discussion and the flows of money will keep growing. Attention is focused mainly on autonomous vehicles for passengers (think Google car, Tesla Autopilot) and automated road freight transport (think truck platooning, Otto).  Availability of those vehicles will lead to disruptive change in two other domains: private mobility on the one hand and professional transport services on the other.

Itinernat LibraryThe profound technological change implied by autonomous driving will inspire radical innovations in the way vehicles are used – as happened with phones, which have become much more than just devices to make calls since they became mobile. This innovation happens like a wave that feeds on itself until mature usage patterns emerge after something like 10 or 15 years. We must humbly recognise that nobody can claim today to have a clear vision of what those usages will be in one or two decades.

But that shouldn’t stop us of thinking boldly today about what might happen. Personally, I believe that itinerant services will be a new important usage area for autonomous vehicles. Such itinerant services were very popular in the 1950s and 60s in many countries, particularly with libraries. Those vans were serving areas that had few or no public libraries or bookshops, but still had many potential interested readers. I was an intensive user of a library van during my summer holidays for some years and have fond memory of the value it provided in terms of access to varied reading.

Changing places

Post offices or banks on wheels as well as rolling points-of-saleFood Truck grass for vegetables or clothes were also common in many regions, and sometimes still are. Recently, this phenomenon has seen something of a revival with the appearance of food trucks that bring high-end cuisine literally to the streets of hip urban quarters – in principle a modern, upmarket take on the Kebab or ice cream vans of yonder.

Automated vehicle will create a real opportunity for the resurgence of itinerant services, I believe. There seems to be a particularly strong case for them where the self-driving vehicle can provide some form of sophisticated equipment to which clients otherwise would have to travel. The most obvious examples that come to mind are in the health sector. The collection of medical samples fordiagnostics purposes, for instance, could probably be organised with specialised self-driving vehicles, very likely with remote human support from a medical professional.
Vehicle autonomy not only reduces the cost of provision of those itinerant services and makes them more accessible to its users. Self-driving vehicles also make it much easier to change locations during off hours – during night time or on public holidays, say. Entrepreneurial spirit, associated with technological innovations in other sectors than transport will have a quite field to explore. The whole field of “experiencing”, presently a key target of the travel industry, comes to mind in association with virtual reality and possibly differentiated catering evoking the places thus visited.

Mobile Post officeUltimately, marrying a time-honoured service idea with
modern self-driving technology could help bring a wide range of
sophisticated services that currently can only be accessed in more time consuming and often costly ways to people everywhere. The space of opportunity for business innovation is clearly there.

Forever circling

So my bet is that we will see the re-emergence of itinerant services, but possibly on a much larger scale and with greater variety than the good, old fashioned library on wheels I knew. Unlike my bookish van, which returned to its depot in the evening and left from there again the next morning (with a good night’s sleep for the driver in between), the trips of a self-driving itinerant service will no longer have a clear origin or destination. It will be forever circling around, with “destinations” simply a succession of events along the way. Some of its functions could probably be performed without even hair cut

From a transport policy perspective, this will be a more efficient and less travel-intensive way of providing certain services. For other business models,  this approach will generate new markets and probably additional vehicle kilometres on the road.

What the combined effect of all this will be nobody can say. What we can say is that autonomous vehicles will spawn new forms of mobility, and that it will pay off to carefully monitor this development – to spot new business opportunities, but ultimately also to enable them to thrive in a transport system that is efficient, safe, user-friendly, not only once we reach a future steady state, but throughout the radical transformation transport is entering.

José Viegas is the Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum

The Sharing Economy: How shared self-driving cars could change city traffic

by Sharon Masterson, International Transport Forum Corporate Partnership Board

Click to download the report
Click to download

In 2011, TIME Magazine named collaborative consumption (or the sharing economy as it is often called) as one of the top 10 ideas that will change the world.

Four years on, this prediction seems to be holding true. The number of companies operating in the sharing economy is rising rapidly in the transport sector alone, and includes household names such as Uber, BlaBlaCar, Lyft, Zipcar, etc. The public seems to be embracing this phenomenon as we witness users flocking to join these platforms across the globe.

Given that a typical car lies idle some 23 hours a day, car owners are investing in something that they barely use, so this untapped potential is at the heart of the sharing economy in personal transportation. With automated, self-driving cars only around the corner (and some precursor components already in the market in the form of adaptive cruise control, lane assist and self-parking), we decided to look at how combining the shared economy aspect (shared vehicles) with developing technology (automated vehicles) can be applied today, by asking “What if all conventional cars in a city were replaced by a fleet of shared self-driving vehicles”?

The results of this exercise were very interesting.

We carried out a simulation on a representation of the street network of the city of Lisbon, using origin and destination data derived from a fine-grained database of trips on the basis of a detailed travel survey. Trips were allocated to different modes: walking, shared self-driving vehicles or high-capacity public transport. We set a constraint that all trips should take at most 5 minutes longer than today’s car trips take for all scenarios, and assumed all trips are done by shared vehicles and none by buses or private cars. We also modelled a scenario which included high-capacity public transport (Metro in the case of Lisbon).

We modelled two different car-sharing concepts, “TaxiBots”, a term we coined for self-driving vehicles shared simultaneously by several passengers (i.e. ride sharing), and “AutoVots”, cars which pick-up and drop-off single passengers sequentially (car sharing).

For the different scenarios we measured the number of cars, kilometres travelled, impacts on congestion and impacts on parking space.

The results indicate that shared self-driving fleets can deliver the same mobility as today with significantly fewer cars. In a city serviced by ride-sharing TaxiBots and a good underground system, 90% of cars could be removed from the city.

Even in the scenario that least reduces the number of cars (AutoVots without underground), nearly half of all cars could be removed without impacting the level of service. Note: TaxiBots replace more cars than AutoVots since the latter require more vehicles and much more re-positioning travel to deliver the same level of service.

Even at peak hours, only about one third (35%) of today’s cars would be on the roads (TaxiBots with underground), without reducing overall mobility.

No matter what the scenario, on-street parking spots could be totally removed with a fleet of shared self-driving cars, allowing in a medium-sized European city such as Lisbon, reallocating 1.5 million square metres to other public uses. This equates to almost 20% of the surface of kerb-to-kerb street area (or 210 football pitches!)

These findings suggest that shared self-driving fleets could significantly reduce congestion. In terms of environmental impact, only 2% more vehicles would be needed for a fleet of cleaner, electric, shared self-driving vehicles, to compensate for reduced range and battery charging time.

So what are the policy insights from this study?

  • The impact of self-driving shared fleets is significant but is sensitive to policy choices and deployment scenarios. Transport policies can influence the type and size of the fleet, the mix between traditional public transport and shared vehicles and, ultimately, the amount of car travel, congestion and emissions in the city. For small and medium-sized cities it is conceivable that a shared fleet of self-driving vehicles could completely obviate the need for traditional public transport.
  • Actively managing freed capacity and space is still necessary to lock in benefits. Shared vehicle fleets free up a significant amount of space in the city. However prior experience indicates that this space must be pro-actively managed in order to lock in benefits. Management strategies could include restricting access to this space by allocating it to bicycle tracks or enlarging sidewalks, or also to commercial or recreational uses, as well as to delivery bays. For example, freed-up space in off-street parking could be used for logistics distribution centres.
  • Road safety will likely improve; environmental benefits will depend on vehicle technology. Despite increases in overall levels of car travel, the deployment of large-scale self-driving vehicle fleets will likely reduce crashes and crash severity. At the same time, environmental impacts are still tied to per-kilometre emissions and thus will be dependent on the penetration of more fuel efficient and less polluting technologies.
  • Public transport, taxi operations and urban transport governance will have to adapt. The deployment of self-driving and shared fleets in an urban context will directly compete with the way in which taxi and public transport services are currently organised. These fleets might effectively become a new form of low capacity/high quality public transport. Labour issues will be significant but there is no reason why public transport operators or taxi companies could not take an active role in delivering these services.

Useful links

As well as this study, the ITF Corporate Partnership Board has released additional studies looking at Autonomous Driving: Regulatory Issues and Mobility Data: Changes and Opportunities

This article first appeared in the OECD Insights blog