Last September, RAC WA purchased Australia’s first on-demand driverless car in Perth when it paid €300,000 ($490,000) for the ‘Intellicar’ from driverless car maker Navya.

The vehicle is being tested in three stages: at RAC’s private facility at the airport, on public roads without passengers and on public roads in a quieter area with passengers.

Whilst ideas about the Australian population en masse forgoing their seat behind the wheel remain far off, self-driving cars are on their way.

Also on the horizon could be ‘zero emission’ cars powered either by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.

For governments, this raises questions about infrastructure which will be needed to support either self-driving and/or zero emission vehicles, the opportunities and challenges these present and strategies which could help promote best possible outcomes from these vehicles.

In Victoria, the government in 2017 asked the state’s infrastructure advisory body Infrastructure Victoria (IV) to advise on these matters. Last October, IV released its final report.

In a presentation at the Construction Technology Summit held recently in Melbourne by software provider Oracle, Infrastructure Victoria Executive Director & General Council Dr Johnathan Spear outlined the work performed and the main findings.

Otherwise known as ‘self-driving cars’, autonomous vehicles are those which are capable of operating without a human driver. Near term, these will most likely operate as independent vehicles and respond to the surrounding environment in a similar manner to how human drivers do today.  Further out, such vehicles may well cooperate with and be connected to other vehicles via a network.

Zero emission vehicles are those which do not emit any emissions from either the tailpipe, charging source or the fuel source. At the moment, IV says vehicles powered either by electric batteries or by hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to be zero emissions.

In its work, IV selected a 30-year timeframe spanning from 2016 until 2046. This period was considered the earliest under which any scenario involving a large-scale shift to either zero emission and/or fully autonomous vehicles was plausible. This was also the maximum timeframe over which meaningful projections on population and land use can be extended.

Seven scenarios were created under which IV varied aspects of the driving mode (human driven or autonomous), the power source (electric, hydrogen or standard petrol) and ownership market models (privately owned vehicles or vehicles which form part of a fleet in taxi or rideshare type arranagements) and the degree of take-up of various technologies.

Using these, it looked at how each scenario would impact road engineering, urban design, information and communications, population and land use, energy infrastructure (i.e. refuelling via the grid instead of a petrol station), social and economic factors and government finances.

According to the analysis, advantages in moving to zero emission and/or autonomous vehicles are substantial.

First, there is less crowding on roads. Under scenarios whereby all vehicles are fleet owned, the analysis found that road congestion could be reduced by up to 91 percent. This happens as several million privately owned cars which currently serve the needs of Melbourne are substituted for three or four hundred thousand fleet owned vehicles.

Whilst acknowledging that reductions of this magnitude seem ambitious, Spear says the 91 percent figure was tested thoroughly. Should we fail to reach 91 percent, he says congestion reductions will still be substantial.

Second, zero emission vehicles which do not emit toxic chemicals through exhausts and are powered by zero emission sources can deliver benefits to both the environment and public health. In its study, IV found that Victoria could achieve carbon emission reductions in the realm of 25 percent and health benefits worth $735 million through switching to automated and/or zero emission vehicles.

This, Spear says, raises an important point about the source of fuel through which vehicles are driven. Merely having zero emission vehicles, he said, is of less environmental value if they are powered by emissions intensive fuel sources such as coal.

Third, there are opportunities for space currently occupied by vehicles to be repurposed. On this score, Spear exhibits a future scenario for the Monash Freeway using a 100 percent automated vehicle fleet. In this scene, vehicles travel closer together as they break automatically when necessary. As well, there is no concrete safety barrier in the middle of the road. Space freed up because of this, Spear says, could be used for bike lanes.

Also able to be repurposed will be space currently used as car parks. As several million private vehicles are gradually replaced by three or four hundred thousand fleet vehicles (and as these vehicles can remain on the road without needing to be parked), millions of vehicles will no longer need to be parked in driveways, apartment basements, commercial spaces or in public spaces such as train stations. Much of this space could be better used. At Mirvac’s EY Centre at 200 George Street in Sydney, for example, part of the underground carpark has been transformed into an urban farm which features vegetable patches, a hydroponic vertical farm and a vertical ‘Farmwall’ (with each such element growing their own varieties of herbs and leafy greens).

Finally, there is safety. In America, the US National Highways Administration estimates that up to 94 percent of road accidents could be avoided by switching to autonomous vehicles as crashes now caused by human error no longer occur.

Again, Spears acknowledges that this figure is optimistic. Nevertheless, he says potential safety benefits are substantial.

Artist impression of Sturt Street Ballarat in a world of zero emission and automated vehicles. Source: Infrastructure Victoria.

For all this to happen, infrastructure must be adequate in terms of mobile connectivity, road and line marking quality to support autonomous vehicles, and energy networks.

This will cost money. Whilst much of the capital to support connectivity in metropolitan areas will come from private sources, taxpayer dollars will be needed to upgrade coverage in mobile black spot areas. On roads, IV says around $250 million worth of state and local government money will be needed to ready highways and streets to support autonomous vehicles. Finally, IV says around $2.2 million worth of investments in energy networks will be needed.

Furthermore, all this could have unintended consequences.

Were large numbers of vehicles to be autonomous but still privately owned, Spear says people could choose to avoid hefty parking fees by sending cars home once they arrived at work and ordering them back in time to go home. Were this to happen, congestion would deteriorate as vehicles needlessly travelled both ways to and from work during both morning and evening peak hour.

As well, pressure could be placed upon energy networks should masses of electric vehicle owners charge their batteries at the same time after returning from work.

To prevent these things from happening, Spears says pricing incentives may be needed to discourage sending cars home or to encourage charging outside of peak times.

Finally, should existing private vehicles become redundant as people shift to fleet managed stock, the disused vehicles could generate significant waste which will need to be managed.

In terms of action, IA made 95 recommendations across seventeen areas. Of these, Spear says several stand out.

First, roads must be able to support autonomous vehicles. On this score, IV have encouraged the government to audit and evaluate the suitability of current road infrastructure to identify challenges associated with their suitability or otherwise for autonomous vehicles and to ensure that these can be addressed in funding arrangements and road upgrade programs. As well, IA says the government should develop a transport plan which incorporates potential impacts from and opportunities provided by autonomous and zero emission vehicles.

Next, communications infrastructure should be adequate to support this and should integrate with the energy system. Here, Infrastructure Victoria says the government should promote investment in IT infrastructure where there is a safety and/or optimisation requirement for automated vehicles that the market is unable to satisfy commercially, expand data sharing, develop integrated transport management plans and plan to enable the energy sector to respond to autonomous vehicles.

Third, the broader urban environment must be planned to support these types of vehicles. Drop off and pickup zones will need to be more prevalent than what is the case today. Rules about where chargers for electric vehicles can be placed within apartment complexes as well as who pays for these will need to be cleared up. So too will inconsistent rules across municipalities surrounding street vehicle parking.

Finally, thought will be needed about future proofing new road assets as they are constructed. Given the uncertainty surrounding what ICT will be needed going forward, designing in the capability to add or subtract technologies as required will be important. As well, business cases for new road investments may need to factor in the potential for lower demand as the shift to fleet managed vehicles and autonomous vehicles gathers pace.

Overall, Spears says Victoria has opportunities but must prepare its infrastructure to capitalise on these.

“Our over-arching message is that there is a lot to be gained for the citizens of Victoria if we can get automated and zero emission vehicles right,” Spear said.

“And whilst much of that has to be driven by the private sector and much of what we receive will be international markets developed and provided to us, the ability for us to be receptive to receive that technology and adopt it in the way that is most beneficial to us is a real challenge.”