How many self-driving cars have you seen on public roads? ‘None’ is probably the most common answer. It’s also a reason why speculating on the effects of autonomous vehicles on public roads is a bit tricky.
Granted, it goes without saying changes and challenges will need to be overcome. We already know driverless cars will affect traditional transportation. Uber and Swift have already stated their wish to implement transportation services using autonomous vehicles.
But what about trains? Could they be affected as well? The Boston Consulting Group thinks trains will be affected by self-driving cars.
The Problem with Long Distance Travel by Car
A three hundred miles drive is often an experience you don’t look forward to. There are real dangers on the road you, as a driver, need to pay attention to. It means you have to focus on driving, so you can’t do anything else.
So, the reason people choose to travel long distances by train is the opportunity to use that time for something useful. It is also one of the most important advantages autonomous vehicles offer to the public. While the car takes you where you need to be, you can read, sleep and even work.
But if people would have an alternative to trains, they might embrace it really fast. Especially since they avoid wasting the time spent on getting to the train station.
It might also lead to a wider adoption of ride and car sharing.
The Self-Driving Cars’ Disruption to Rail
Granted, during peak hours, trains could remain the cheapest and maybe the fastest way of transportation in urban areas. But during off-peak hours or in rural areas, there’s a high chance rail will lose commuters to driverless vehicles.
It won’t happen all of a sudden, but slowly, in time. The thing is even a small decrease in ridership may generate a ripple effect. It could trigger increased prices and reduced schedules. Sadly, it will only worsen the situation of rail transportation.
However, the disruption to rail won’t happen globally. Countries with higher population densities and tech-savvy commuters will be the first impacted.
How Could Self-Driving Cars Take Over
It would surely be too expensive to own an autonomous vehicle for long-distance traveling. But owning a fleet of driverless cars will become a reality.
We’ve mentioned ride sharing and car sharing previously. These services are already available almost everywhere, but autonomous vehicles will change them for the better.
For the user, it might mean a decrease in cost and an increase in comfort. You won’t need to walk up to the car’s parking spot, but call it at your doorsteps. More important, you’ll be able to choose the type of car you need for the ride – e.g.: bigger vs smaller.
For the fleet’s owner, self-driving cars bring a wide array of benefits. For starters, maintenance and fuel costs would be much lower. When driverless cars become a reality and are widely deployed on public streets, they will be able to communicate with each other.
It could mean less braking and acceleration and a generally more fluid traffic, which translates into less fuel consumption.
‘Derailing’ Trains Might be a Good Thing
There’s a valid concern often overlooked: with more cars on the road, doesn’t pollution levels increase? Hundreds of people travel simultaneously with the same train, but there are only four – or a couple more – seats in a vehicle.
BCG believes car and ride sharing would increase the adoption of electric self-driving cars. At the moment, electric cars are not so popular because of their low autonomy. But when driven by a computer, on a road with other driverless vehicles, autonomy should increase. It would reach the breakeven point regarding mileage.
Would You Travel Long Distances in a Driverless Car?
As popular as ride sharing and car sharing are at the moment, many dislike them. Their objections revolve around safety and privacy.
Traveling in a car driven by an unknown person doesn’t appeal to many. You can’t really trust the person and its driving skills.
But self-driving cars in this context are meant to solve both safety and privacy issues.
First of all, they’re driven by a computer who won’t fall asleep or drink alcohol. It is able to read the road better and communicate efficiently with the other vehicles on the road.
When it comes to privacy, autonomous vehicles developed for car sharing could have separate glass-walled compartments.
Humanity still has a few years of waiting until this scenario becomes true.
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