A report issued by Australian telecommunications company Telstra shows that autonomous vehicles could save Australia billions of dollars in traffic infrastructure investment. With conventional vehicles, the capacity of the road network would need to more than double (to 250%) over the next 35 five years to accommodate increased mobility demand. Self-driving cars, however, use the road more efficiently and require less road capacity. Based on the assumption that autonomous vehicles will be introduced into the market by 2020 and their adoption will grow linearly until all vehicles can drive autonomously twenty years later the study finds that road capacity demands will peak around 2033 at a level 50% larger than today’s road infrastructure and then decline towards today’s road infrastructure levels by 2039.
The study clearly shows that infrastructure planners need to adjust their estimates of road network growth to the advent of self-driving cars. With these cars governments can reduce road infrastructure spending by billions of dollars. It is time to fundamentally rethink the current approach to infrastructure planning!
Impressive as the potential savings identified in the study are, additional effects may further reduce infrastructure needs: The study did not consider impending structural changes in mobility: Autonomous vehicles will lead to an increased use of mobility-on demand services which change the distribution of trip patterns during the day and increase ride sharing in various forms. Both effects will further reduce the peak load on our roads.
It is time to seriously consider the implications of self-driving cars. Rather than investing in concrete and asphalt, governments should accelerate the adoption of autonomous car technology today. This lowers accident rates, reduces the ecological footprint of mobility and increases the competitive position of first-adopter countries.