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Woman using smart bus stop to call CAV

What does the growth in CAVs mean for the future of mass transport?

By | CAV, Infrastructure, Multimodal transport, Public Transport, Smart transport | One Comment

How things change. Just a decade ago, the majority of people wouldn’t even know what a ‘Connected vehicle’ was. The past few years, however, have seen several transport technologies shift from the realm of fantastical to entirely possible.

The rapid pace of technological development has brought us to a point where an entirely connected transport infrastructure is not just possible, it’s becoming a reality as we speak. Likewise, the growth of data-sharing devices and AI has given rise to a new form of transport; the Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV). These AI-driven, data-guided vehicles represent an opportunity to improve safety, reduce congestion and revolutionise travel as we know it.

What are CAVs?

The term CAVs actually covers a broad range of vehicle types. Some of these are already on our roads, while some (despite what excitable tech bosses might tell you) are still several years away from commercial deployment.

‘Connected vehicles’ refers to vehicles with the capability to ‘talk’ to each other and to the infrastructure around them. These vehicles communicate through onboard devices that connect to the internet, which then send information to other vehicles containing the same technology. These devices usually take the form of a dynamic onboard router, but they can also be GPS units, tachographs, or even a smartphone hooked up to an onboard computer. Connected vehicles have also been in use for several years. Features like automated emergency braking and lane assist technology are already included as standard in many new vehicles.

Fully automated vehicles, where the vehicle can navigate without the need for a human driver, however, are still in their tertiary stages. Although there have been some highly publicised test cases, we’re still several years away from seeing them overtake the human-driven car.

Why now?

Transport is in dire need of change. Cities can no longer continue to permit any and all vehicles on the road. Ageing infrastructure, increasing car ownership and dwindling public transport ridership are contributing to record levels of congestion and dangerously poor air quality.

Governments are responding to the demand for more sustainable travel initiatives by integrating technologies like big data, the Internet-of-Things and AI to usher in an era where CAVs are increasingly seen as the most viable option for transport networks.

In Edinburgh, where the government is set to trial it’s first autonomous buses, MSP Michael Matheson said: “The deployment of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles has the potential to bring transformative change to people’s lives, not just in how we travel, but in how we work; where we live; how we can achieve an environment with fewer emissions; and travel more safely.” The potential for CAVs to usher in a new age of clean, efficient transport is clear.

Reducing congestion through demand-responsive bus services

Growth

CAVs can help countries achieve a greater level of sustainability while encouraging greater economic growth and creating a more inclusive society. The market for CAVs in the UK (specifically, for road vehicles with CAV technologies) is estimated to be worth £28bn in 2035, capturing 3% of the £907bn global market. Simultaneously, UK jobs in the manufacture and assembly of CAVs could reach 27,400 in 2035, according to a study commissioned by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV).

It’s not just the potential industrial benefits that should push cities to invest more heavily in CAVs, however. Streamlined urban transport allows passengers to get where they need to be faster. With the total cumulative cost of congestion in the UK estimated to be £307 billion from 2013 to 2030, these improvements couldn’t come soon enough.

Besides the benefits to the economy, using CAVs in mass transit can help entice car users back to public transport. This, in turn, enables more research into new technologies, which allows transport networks to grow and develop. It’s a cycle that, when implemented correctly, rewards everyone.

Queue of despondent people waiting at bus stop

Passenger experience

A streamlined service gives passengers more control over their day. When commuters know exactly when their journey will start and end, they can make informed decisions about other aspects of their routine. CAVs, with connected technologies optimising every journey, mean more reliability, leading to improved passenger satisfaction and increased patronage.

Onboard connectivity also allows passengers to create their own entertainment during the journey. Passenger WiFi enables commuters to browse socials, check emails or catch up on the headlines. With onboard entertainment, meanwhile, passengers can sit back and pass their journey with the latest TV, movies and music.

Perhaps most importantly, CAV’s will be vital to a future in which ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) is the standard transport model. MaaS means unifying myriad forms of public transport (train, buses, taxis, bicycles) to give commuters access to on-demand transport. MaaS offers the most economically and environmentally efficient solution to urban travel, but it’s only possible with connected vehicles. This form of multimodal travel is also the most convenient, which increases the chances passengers will use it.

Women using smartphones on a bus

Drivers

Whilst fully automated vehicles would render the human driver obsolete, that doesn’t mean vehicles would be completely unstaffed. Operators that have already trialled autonomous buses have so far retained human drivers in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Even with the AI handling navigation, onboarding and interaction with external infrastructure, passengers will invariably expect a human presence.

Of course, the shift from human to AI driver will inevitably lead to a reduction in drivers. Indeed, that’s one of the biggest attractions to transport operators; allowing them to save on wages while improving efficiency. But, at least for the first generation of CAVs, it looks like drivers will still be a required element.

For drivers of public transport today, it’s the ‘connected’ element of CAVs that offer the most opportunity. With connected vehicles, buses can ‘talk’ to every element of connected infrastructure. Other vehicles, traffic lights, road signs, even the roads themselves can provide information inform driver decisions. This helps to reduce congestion and coordinate journeys to reduce travel times.

Driverless CAV vehicle computer rendering

Safety

Reducing road dangers, for pedestrians and passengers, is of utmost importance to every transport operator. A major advantage of CAVs is they remove the margin for human error. Automated vehicles will never be too tired, drunk, or just distracted, to responsibly control a vehicle.

This improvement in safety, however, may not be obvious to passengers. Those already using public transport do so because they trust the driver to deliver them safely to their destination. This confidence doesn’t necessarily extend to new technologies.

A recent survey on public attitudes to driverless cars revealed just 17% of people would feel safe in an autonomous vehicle, compared with 61% in a human-controlled vehicle. This is partly the result of a general mistrust of new, (relatively) unproven technologies. But public reticence also stems from high-profile incidents in which AI failed to anticipate the most unpredictable of all variables; human behaviour. These behaviours; for instance, hand signals from traffic police, are key to maintaining safety on the roads. For now, at least, human driver behaviour is beyond the understanding of even the most advanced autonomous vehicles.

As Google’s Chris Urmson (co-founder of Aurora, an autonomous vehicle start-up) explained, self-driving vehicles are only safe in a vacuum; they can’t guarantee safety as long as there are other humans driving on the same road.

Environment

The transport sector is now the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. The latest government figures show CO2 emissions from transport decreased by just 2%, meaning it now accounts for 26% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. For the UK to achieve it’s carbon reduction targets, the transport industry must push measures to reduce emissions now. Public transport, and CAVs, in particular, will be at the forefront of these efforts.

As more cities introduce Clean Air Zones (CAZs) in a bid to improve air quality, public transport must adapt with it. Part of this change requires introducing technologies that reduce congestion and optimise traffic flows. CAVs will play a key role in this change.

At its heart, connected transport is about creating a genuinely open ecosystem. CAVs only function in a cohesive and connected world; a world in which data informs every aspect of the journey. The rapid growth of the IoT sector is a testament to how much faith cities are placing in the power of data. Data from public transport can inform every stage of the commuter journey, and reduce fuel consumption in the process.

Red bus driving through London with Gherkin obscured in background

So far, autonomous transport technology has focused on the individual. Much more important is investment in mass transport options to draw people away from car travel. It’s only through encouraging greater use of the current transport infrastructure that we can hope to develop new services that truly appeal to the needs of passengers.

Even with major investment, rural areas could be shut out of the connected vehicle revolution. The majority of government grants will go to the largest national and municipal transport bodies. Simultaneously, most independent operators aren’t in a position to invest in autonomous vehicles. Sadly, while autonomous public transport could become a reality within the next ten years, it’s still just a dot on the horizon for the majority of transport companies.

Get in touch with Sygnal to for help on integrating onboard technologies into your own vehicles.