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The driverless future: the road to new opportunity?

Andrew Hay Consultant

Andrew Hay | Consultant, Sydney | 27 February 2017

Increased safety, reduced travel time, fewer emissions, and artificial intelligence. These are just a few of the exciting features of the driverless vehicle future.

With developments in GPS accuracy, data ownership, vehicle connectivity, cyber security and ethical decision making, driverless vehicles are just around the corner for Australia. Current regulations have been scrutinised with respect to safety, licensing and certifications, interactions with enforcement and others in the anticipation of new driverless technology. While most discussions around driverless vehicles focus on the technology, there are larger challenges to address in order to adequately prepare ourselves for the driverless world. A number of these issues were raised at Roads Australia’s ‘National Stakeholder Briefing on Driverless Rollout in Australia’ in February.

Imagine a driverless future where people call a driverless vehicle from their smart phone, arranging cost effective door to door transportation by use of an app. This vehicle could be part of a fleet, each performing multiple trips per day. It is likely that these car fleets would offer a form of cheap and convenient transport so attractive that it could lead to the decline of private car ownership. With this concept in mind it is easy to see how the advent of driverless vehicles will impact far more than just the driver.

Driverless vehicles will challenge the way we think about public transport, cities, the ownership and management of the road network, and how the true cost of travel is captured.

Fleets of driverless vehicles and ridesharing will emerge as a new form of public transport offering a service in a way that current public transport does not. With a reducing need to live in the inner city or on a train line, city design will rely less on densification. Land value may also be distributed away from areas with immediate access to the road or rail network. With new businesses in the driverless industry inevitably emerging, our road network may be seen as unclaimed open space in which to operate.

Roads have always been owned and managed by governments, vehicles have largely been owned and maintained by individuals, and the use of road space has generally not been based on a user pay model. The future may challenge this model, with vehicles potentially being owned by a small number of major operators who charge individuals to make their journeys, thus tapping into a previously uncaptured revenue stream. Instead of paying a fuel excise of 40c per litre, road tolls, and stamp duty, consumers would pay a small price per journey. With 16 million car journeys in Sydney each day, an average of $10 per journey would generate more than $1 billion per week in Sydney alone. This shift in the transportation model provides an opportunity for governments and businesses to capture a new commercial commodity and capitalise on the existing road network.


The ownership and maintenance of the road network has always been a community service obligation. Current road user charging models reflect this by covering regular maintenance and improvement costs. As we are thrust toward the driverless world the current owners and managers of the road network may experience losses in revenue from fuel efficiencies, alternative fuels, ridesharing, and other transport options. Emerging businesses will begin to capitalise on the tens of millions of car journeys that occur every day in our cities. The road network will quickly transition from a community service obligation to a commercial resource. Without changes to the present road pricing structure, governments will continue to bear the cost of maintaining the road network without necessarily capturing the full commercial value of the infrastructure - with a shrinking revenue (tax/excise) base.

We all have an opportunity to facilitate this transition and experience the numerous benefits.

Current transportation and asset management models will change and we need to develop new systems that can cope with radical change, embrace the complex differences in current and future models, and maintain good relationships with key businesses and stakeholders in the industry. As new players roll out their business models - which may include owning or leasing parts of the road network - policy makers will need to work collaboratively and make their expectations clear in negotiating access to the network on a commercial basis. By establishing a stable and robust framework, policy makers will provide a controlled space for innovations in driverless vehicle technology to develop.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn



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