Who’s at the wheel: driverless cars

Waymo self-driving car

Will driverless cars transform our cities for the better? Dr John Stone explores what’s driving the development of driverless cars and what they might mean for sustainable urban transport.

THERE IS a lot of talk about emerging transport technologies such as driverless cars. Much is being made of their potential to disrupt urban travel in ways we have not seen since Henry Ford’s black automobiles began rolling off his new assembly lines in 1913 and utterly transformed urban life. What futures— utopian or dystopian—might be unfolding in the boardrooms and laboratories of Google, Tesla and Volkswagen? What alternatives might the new technologies offer us?

An electric future is possible

Alternative propulsion for the standard car or truck is already available. With new battery storage or hydrogen fuel cells, we can begin to imagine a future where electric motors allow us to leave dwindling oil stocks in the ground and stabilise the global climate without disrupting our hyper-mobile urban lives.

I’ll leave to another time the debate on whether we really can generate sufficient extra renewable energy for this sort of transition, but powering well over a billion cars and trucks across the planet is no trivial task (see box). Analysts like Damon Honnery at Monash University say that motorised transport, if made sustainable, will be dramatically constrained whatever our power source.

But better policy is needed

In any case, there are many serious problems in our cities that mass transition to electric power won’t fix: electric vehicles don’t strengthen urban growth boundaries or reduce demand for parking that eats up valuable urban land, they don’t make driving safer, they don’t make the life of the city any more accessible to anyone with few options other than to live on the urban fringe, and they don’t provide the daily exercise that helps prevent heart disease and diabetes.

Read the full article in ReNew 139.