Mathew Lowry

The impact autonomous cars will have on personal mobility and cities will dwarf the disruption Uber and AirBnB have wrought on their respective industries. Joined-up European policies seem in short supply (update, April 2016 – this is now changing; see below).

Autonomous vehicle technology is already well-tested and will be road-ready sooner rather than later, in all likelihood transforming personal transport into ‘mobility as a service’, destroying tens of thousands of jobs and most forms of public transport.

Google Now chimes to let me know that it’s summoned a car a few minutes earlier than normal because it expects the bad weather to reduce cyclist numbers. I down my coffee and step out the door just as it pulls up.

It could massively reduce carbon emissions, but this is far from guaranteed – transport-related pollution could actually climb.

My mobility contract is EconomyPlus, so the back row is already taken. I mumble a hello as I slide into the front, my phone transferring the article I was reading to the tablet embedded where they used to put glove boxes. I’m not a Morning Person.

While the technology is driving (itself) around the corner, many issues remain concerning licensing, insurance and liability. The key question is whether Europe seizes the opportunity to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs.

Efficiency and safety

I look up from my ToDo list as the car stops and the door behind me opens and closes. Rue Wiertz. My fellow passenger works at the European Parliament. Probably should have said hello.

Autonomous, or selfdriving, cars may signal the end of car ownership. I won’t mourn it. You won’t read many articles on this topic before you come across Everyone’s Favourite Statistic:

“your car sits outside, idle and depreciating, for 96% of its life”

End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile (Guardian | Cities)

People will move to mobility contracts, a service which allows them to use their travel time more productively, is faster, and offers door-to-door convenience without parking hassles:

“Traffic will constantly flow, and at a rate that would probably unnerve the average human driver. The researchers have modeled just how this would work, as you can see in the animation …”


What Intersections Would Look Like in a World of Driverless Cars (Atlantic | CityLab)

Not to mention far, far safer:

“after a few minutes, the idea of a computer-driven car seemed much less terrifying than the panorama of indecision, BlackBerry-fumbling, rule-flouting, and other vagaries of the humans around us… It can think faster than any mortal driver. It can attend to more information, react more quickly to emergencies, and keep track of more complicated routes. It never panics. It never gets angry. It never even blinks. In short, it is better than human in just about every way…”

Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here (Wired)

I watch the streets scroll by as my car weaves back into the taxibots’ dense, computer-synchonised rush-hour ballet. Ahead a wider gap forms as they keep a watchful distance from a manually-driven limousine. Diplomat, probably. Welcome to the European Quarter. Tit.

Goodbye, public transport

Urban public transport, however, may simply die. According to OECD analyses of traffic in Lisbon:

“self-driving, shared “taxibots” … could eliminate 90% of cars on the roads, open up acres of land and slash commute times … completely obviate the need for traditional public transport.”

How Self-Driving Cars Could Radically Transform Cities (RWW)

It’s pretty easy to see why from a US study examining the impact of deploying Uber’s autonomous car in New York:

“passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile.”

How Uber’s Autonomous Cars Will Destroy 10 Million Jobs and Reshape the Economy by 2025 (Zack Kanter)

My car pulls into what used to be a bus stop, opposite a derelict Metro station, to pick up a young couple laden with shopping. As we pull away, the car asks if it can drop me 20 metres from my programmed destination, as its next passenger is wheelchair-bound. No problem. I reach for my mask.

So forget the Metro, the Tube, buses and trams. We’ll see more people on the roads, in fewer, robot-driven cars. Cars which never stop, constantly ferrying people and packages from A to B, pausing only for fuel.

Driving down emissions?

With the number of kilometres driven in cars heading up, the key question is: what fuel?

Everything I’ve read on autonomous cars forecast significant environmental benefits, ignoring the emissions increases from shifting public transport users into road transport.

While software can ensure taxibots are driven more efficiently, these cars will need to be much more efficient to compensate for increased usage. Moreover, while taxibot-sharing could increase carpooling, that will depend on the users. Google’s prototype only has two seats:

Google’s prototype driverless car is a 2-seater
Google’s prototype driverless car is a 2-seater

The required fuel/emission efficiency may come naturally. Today, most cars are bought by individuals, for whom purchase price outweighs running costs because the car only runs 5% of the time. For the same reason, transport running costs are not a matter of financial survival for most individuals.

Taxibots, on the other hand, will be operated by competitive companies, providing transport as a service 24/7. They will need to constantly drive costs down just to stay in business, so cost-per-kilometre will be far more important, favouring fuel-efficiency.

Employment carnage

But there is no guarantee that tomorrow’s autonomous cars will be any greener. After all, while autonomous transport represents creative destruction – overall productivity is expected to soar – automobile manufacturing is set for massive downsizing, cutting into R&D budgets and reducing competition:

“PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the number of vehicles on the road will be reduced by 99% … from 245 million to just 2.4 million vehicles… motor vehicles and parts manufacturing … dealer and maintenance network… truck, bus, delivery, and taxi drivers… Virtually all of these 10 million jobs will be eliminated within 10-15 years, and this list is by no means exhaustive.”

How Uber’s Autonomous Cars Will Destroy 10 Million Jobs and Reshape the Economy by 2025 (Zack Kanter)

These (US) figures represent European employment carnage – all the major new players poised to disrupt today’s carmakers (Google, Tesla, Uber, Apple…) seem to be American. Uber is the visible tip of an iceberg set to rip a large hole in Europe’s automotive industry.

I slip my mask and earbuds on as I step out – now that everyone’s using taxibots, rush hour pollution levels are eye-watering. That momentary distraction was all the enraged, embittered ex-Uber driver waiting in ambush needed. I wake up an hour later in hospital, sore but not concussed, minus my valuables.

Unique opportunity

So on the one hand we have a tremendous opportunity to radically cut transport pollution as we transition from 100,000,000s of privately owned cars to far fewer cars, operated by cost-conscious companies. These new cars and associated services, after all, do need to be licensed, so it may be possible to ensure that all fleet-operated urban autonomous cars be electric; and/or use renewably sourced electricity; and/or massively favour car-pooling.

But on the other hand, Europe will be facing an industry in total disruptive meltdown, losing millions of jobs, which will not exactly welcome new regulation.

Is there any sign that Europe is ready for this?

The EU, of course, does plenty of research – see for example the CityMobil2 project – but the only mention in EC policy I’ve found is that “intelligent transport systems (ITS) … autonomous vehicles, vehicle-to-x communication, as well as smart mobility” should be priority discussion points within the CARS 2020 process (report, pdf).


“The USA has defined an ambitious strategy for making electric vehicles competitive … Unlike the USA, the EU has been unable to formulate a coherent long-term EV strategy. It has left that job to member states with the result of patchwork.”
Electric Vehicles are the Future (Eberhard Rhein)

Over at Place Luxembourg, the latest EU Parliament Policy Brief (Challenges for a European market for Electric Vehicles, pdf), is dated June 2010. Unsurprisingly, it mentions neither autonomous vehicles nor any aspect of the disruptive innovations poised to completely transform the industry it purports to study, save a single paragraph on the very last page referring to “New vehicle concepts and mobility services could be established matching to individual mobility needs and transform mobility significantly versus car concepts and mobility patterns such as car sharing in combination with public transport.”

Pity the MEPs trying to make heads or tails out of that.

(update, April 27: many thanks to Deborah Porret, Zurich Insurance, for pointing me to this brand new study (pdf) from the EP).


Of course, transport is just one industrial sector set for massive disruption by autonomous systems powered by general-purpose computing. If you think your job is safe, think again:


As I leave the hospital I reach into my pocket automatically to summon a car. But my phone is gone. So is my watch and mask. My eyes are already watering as I scan the street for a free taxi. I’d have more luck finding a dodo: the mid-morning Amazon shift is underway, mopedbots swarming the streets, leaving faint blue trails of smoke behind them, as they ferry packages to e-shoppers ensconced in their hermetically-sealed apartments and offices. How in hell am I getting home to mine?

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