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Rail and roads will get us nowhere fast, says futurist

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Pack your bags – a transport revolution is coming and will be at our doors by 2021. 

Should we invest our transport billions in highways or railways?

Neither, says transport futurist Tony Seba. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Stanford University educator argues we are on the cusp of a revolution in the way we get ourselves and our goods from A to B. The change will be so profound that there’s no point spending more public money expanding today’s infrastructure.

“Any expansion of highways will be wasted. Even well-intentioned railways – that money will be lost,” he told the Listener.

Seba, in New Zealand last week to meet Government and transport officials, said we would be better spending money tagged for roads and railways on education and digital mapping of our cities so that we are ready to capture the benefits of the coming wave of transport technology.

He sees a future in which autonomous electric vehicles (EVs) create an entirely new transport business model, called “Transport as a Service” (TaaS). Individuals will no longer own vehicles, which spend 96% of their time parked and taking up valuable space. Instead, transport will be provided on-demand by fleets of self-driving EVs. Because they will be able to operate 24 hours a day, only a fraction of the number of cars on the roads today will be needed.

Tony Seba.

He has calculated the average American family will save more than US$5600 a year as a result of not having to own their own wheels, putting more than US$1 trillion into Americans’ pockets by 2030. Freeing individuals from the daily task of driving will also be a huge boost to productivity, worth $US1 trillion to the economy.

Seba says the TaaS revolution will be triggered when autonomous vehicles receive approval from regulators for widespread use on public roads. He predicts that will begin in 2021. Indeed, he argues, it is already under way, with Google’s driverless-car company, Waymo, last month announcing customers will soon be able to hail rides from its autonomous minivans (without human test-drivers) on roads around Phoenix, Arizona.

He points to other signs that massive disruption is imminent. The ride-hailing company Uber recently ordered 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo, to be delivered in 2019. And in the freight sector, Tesla has unveiled an electric truck capable of travelling 800km fully loaded on a single battery charge. Production is expected to start in 2019.

“Trucking will be disrupted even more [than passenger vehicles] by electric and autonomous vehicle technology, because the cost of labour and fuel is 70% of freight-company costs. Electric technology is 10 times cheaper than diesel, and business has to make rational economic choices,” says Seba.

Traditional public transport will also be disrupted because TaaS will be substantially cheaper, he says.

As for highways, “building them has never stopped congestion. Highways bring more congestion. I’m from California – it’s all highways, and Los Angeles has awful congestion.”

He argues the arrival of TaaS will have a “catastrophic” effect on the oil market, and will be a game-changer for the environment by reducing tailpipe emissions by more than 90%.

This article was first published in the December 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.