Published 2018-06-26

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra SAMS researcher: self-driving car at a crossroads

Self-driving vehicles have arrived and will soon affect our lives. But there are no guarantees that they will make transport more sustainable or improve the urban environment — even if they are powered by electricity. There is ample evidence that the opposite could happen.

When Anna Pernestål Brenden starts talking about self-driving vehicles, a worry wrinkle appears on her brow. She sees them as a potential climate threat — above all in the event of one of the imagined future scenarios: that we each get a driverless car of our own… or two.

‘If that happens, the climate will be threatened. But so will the urban environment, because it would lead to considerably more traffic on the streets.’

One reason is that we are going to spend more time in our cars, she argues. Since we do not need to steer the car ourselves, it becomes a living room on wheels where we hang out, socialise, work or whatever we like.

Travelling will cost less for the individual, in terms of time spent, and electrification will also make travel cheaper per kilometre.

‘There’s a high risk of more traffic, and maybe that wasn’t what we intended,’ she says.

Pernestål Brenden also sees problems in a scenario where new taxi services take over parts of private travel.

‘There’s a lot of talk about self-driving taxi services. But the simulations we’ve made show that even if there’s a fall in vehicle numbers, there’ll be more vehicle kilometres for the same transport needs.’

There will be masses of empty cars driving around in towns and cities, or cars that take huge detours, she outlines. What the overall impact on climate and the environment will be is unclear, Pernestål Brenden says.

These are the kinds of ideas that engage researchers at the Integrated Transport Research Lab (ITRL) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. This lab is one of Europe’s most prominent interdisciplinary research labs in the transport sector, and it is also one of the platforms in Mistra’s SAMS programme, Sustainable Accessibility and Mobility Services.

Researchers from various fields assemble here with the same objectives in mind: that transport must exert the least possible environmental impact, entail minimal cost and inconvenience to travellers, and enable companies to make money. The whole issue poses simultaneous questions about infrastructure, policy, business models, consumer behaviour and technical solutions.

But Mistra SAMS is also about possible avoidance of travel. How can we create an employment sector in which there is no need for us to spend so much of the day travelling? How can we establish suburban hubs, such as may be found as a niche practice in metropolitan areas today, where people can go and join a temporary work community?

‘We have an interesting living lab under way in Botkyrka that is testing work communities of that kind.’

Pernestål Brenden is linked to Mistra SAMS and has also headed ITRL for the past year.

The lab is housed behind a modest metal door on the KTH campus. The first thing that strikes visitors is that the doorbell hangs loosely by a cable, attached in a makeshift way with a few loops of household tape. For one of Europe’s more high-profile technological research environments, this makes quite a humble first impression.

Once inside, we find a somewhat messy lab environment with overhead cranes whiteboards scribbled on all over and, at the entrance, a homemade electric vehicle that resembles an oversized go-cart. The first impression is of a children’s playhouse, but this is succeeded by a sense of creativity beyond the boundaries of convention.

Pernestål Brenden thus sees, in self-driving vehicles, a range of opposing risks. If these vehicles become too numerous, they will take space and the risk will be greater traffic congestion than today. If there are fewer self-driving vehicles, the number of kilometres driven could increase dramatically, which would also do the environment no favours.

Although energy is getting cheaper, electricity is not infinite. Batteries deplete Earth’s resources, and solar cells occupy space.

‘There’s something sensible about being energy-efficient,’ says Anna Pernestål Brenden.

There are also technical limitations that remain to be fully resolved. Driverless cars work best on wide highways with traffic moving in one direction. In urban settings, where people throng around the vehicles, they tend to be cautious to a fault. And this makes them slow.

‘It’s hard for self-driving cars when lots of people are moving around them.’

Then there is this jungle of legal and ethical considerations. We touch on these issues only briefly during the conversation, but the questions are there, unanswered.

Who is legally liable for a crash — the vehicle owner, the person inside it, or the software programmer? Who owns the data generated by the vehicle — the car owner, the car manufacturer, the insurance company, or the authorities? The amount of information increases enormously when cars drive themselves. There are cameras, sensors, radar and ultrasound to position the cars, scan the surroundings and so forth.

But can self-driving cars bring any benefits at all, then?

Yes, if we just let go of the idea that we have to own the vehicle we travel in. Then the number of vehicles on the roads could theoretically, and by means of digitisation, be cut to a tenth of today’s number. And we could still travel comfortably from A to B.

There could be car pools for co-ownership, buses of different sizes, BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) services on main roads, small buses in residential districts, etc.

‘My vision’s that we share the journey — that we don’t own the cars — and that one person, one car becomes a thing of the past.’

Just increasing the average number of people in vehicles on the Essingeleden motorway in Stockholm from 1.2 to 1.8 per vehicle would involve a quantum leap, she maintains.

‘But it’s also about right-sizing. Perhaps we don’t need to own a sports utility vehicle just because we need to pull the boat up on land once a year.’

In rural areas, driverless transport services could be used to convey post, medicines and more to people. But silos in the structure of government agencies would then have to be dismantled.

‘Perhaps home nurses could also deliver ordered pizzas to their older clients.’

This kind of change calls for an upscaled approach and expanded thinking. It includes urban planning, indeed all spatial planning. Here, we need to think in new ways, Pernestål Brenden argues. Letting the market or politicians take the initiative is not good enough. Instead, to make progress the market and policy need to go hand in hand.

She cites a research project in her own lab with the Swenglish title ‘Smart Mobility kräver [requires] Smart Governance’ that is to delve into these questions.

Then we have the question of status. In the 20th century, a car was one of the possessions used to express our identity. A study from the University of Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law entitled ‘Honestly, why are you driving a BMW?’ points to the ‘savannah phenomenon’ — that who you are must be visible from a distance, as it is if you drive a BMW or Tesla.

What if we stop owning cars? Here, Pernestål Brenden says that the status symbols will be different. Perhaps we could show that we belong to a particularly fine car pool, or one with a green image.

But public transport, above all, is next in line for self-driving vehicles in the somewhat shorter term. In Kista, Stockholm, for example, self-driving buses are already on the roads.

‘They could boost public transport. Just look at the running costs: 60 per cent of the cost of a bus is the driver. Basically, you get two buses for the price of one. Then they could be twice as frequent. And service frequency is one of the most important factors in public transport