Driverless cars could create ‘rush hour that lasts all day’

Traffic in European cities could increase by between 50% and 150% by 2050 with an unregulated increase in driverless cars, creating a “rush hour that lasts all day”, according to a new study.

Transport campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) found that the unregulated growth of driverless vehicles could also lead to 40% more carbon dioxide emissions from cars by 2050, limiting Europe’s ability to meet its climate goals.

According to the study, the running costs of driverless cars could become so low that they would encourage people, or even empty cars, to travel more and for longer. To ensure driverless vehicles don’t increase CO2 emissions, say the authors, cities should refuse access for automated vehicles with combustion engines. They believe such a move could cut emissions by almost a quarter between now and 2050, compared to a world with no electric or driverless cars.

However, even shared, zero-emission driverless cars will not solve congestion in Europe’s cities, found the study, because their low cost and convenience will increase demand for car travel, filling any road space that becomes available.

Instead, the group’s modelling showed that cities that gradually reduce space for cars, while also rolling out shared, electric, automated vehicles, could shrink overall vehicle activity by as much as 60%. The authors believe that such a change would put European car emissions on track to completely decarbonise transport by 2050.

“Automation, electrification and sharing are three revolutions that can transform the way we move around,” said Yoann Le Petit, T&E’s new mobility expert. “But whether this will be a good thing for the environment or for the livability of our cities depends entirely on the choices governments make.

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“If we want sustainable mobility we need to ban driverless cars with combustion engines and gradually reduce road space for cars in our cities. We need mayors across Europe to press on with this fourth revolution and reclaim the streets for their people.”

The group also warned of the risks of increased demand from the use of automated vehicles by ride-hailing platforms.

“The business model of companies like Uber relies upon rapid growth and automation is one of the biggest ways they plan to expand. Whether this increases emissions or congestion is of no real concern to them,” said Le Petit.

“Still, we believe that if managed well ride hailing services can play a role in reducing car dependency and improving urban mobility. But this requires regulators to do their job. We urgently need policies to ensure all taxi and uber-type vehicles operating in large cities are zero emissions no later than 2025, with incentives for shared rides, and a gradual reduction in parking slots available for private cars.”