Let’s be courageous, part 17

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 16, posted on 31 Oct 2016).

In his heading to Section Three of his Taxpayer’s Alliance briefing paper, Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2, Policy Analyst Harry Fairhead asks the question, Is High Speed 2 the technology we need?.

In this section of his paper, Mr Fairhead questions the need for speed, and what he calls the “disproportionate cost” of designing a railway to deliver “the highest speeds anywhere in the world”, in view of the comparatively short distances between the cities of the United Kingdom. He notes that the emphasis that has been placed on the ability of HS2 to deliver more transport capacity on north-south railway links and questions whether “large-scale investment in rail” is the right choice to deliver this extra capacity.

He comments that there “is currently a clear preference for non-rail long-distance travel” (see footnote 1) and opines that the “use of autonomous vehicles could extend this preference for road travel”. It is his expressed view that the widespread use of autonomous vehicles, more popularly known as driverless cars, “may undermine the demand for HS2 and reduce ticket sales revenues and in turn increase HS2’s net costs and lower the BCR” (see footnote 2).

The model for autonomous vehicles use that appears to be discussed most frequently is as a public service facility, with vehicles being on call, used for the journey and then vacated at the point of departure with the vehicle going on to another task. This rids the user of that most irksome of tasks; finding somewhere to park the thing! With this problem removed the autonomous vehicle concept becomes, perhaps, more attractive for journeys to and from city centres.

To these important three, I would add a fourth based upon my own personal perspective, which is the “cocoon effect” that will be supported, allowing passengers to opt for no company or be able to choose who their company should be – and, of course, overcrowding will be totally avoided.

It is easy to see that the autonomous vehicle concept could be attractive for many shorter journeys, particularly in and around cities, and might, in this way, serve to complement rail transport by providing easy access to stations (see footnote 3): but could such a service compete for passengers with HS2? Clearly, on a straight run between two HS2 stations a driverless car would probably be unable to compete on speed with the train, at least for the foreseeable future, and I doubt that many would be brave enough to sit in a driverless car travelling at over 200mph! However, when you take into account the time taken to travel to and from the HS2 stations, then the autonomous vehicle, with its door-to-door capability, could get closer to HS2 travel times, and it might be attractive to stick with the vehicle for the whole journey, rather than changing to the train for part of it.

Also, the cocoon that travelling in your own bubble provides should not be underrated as a selling point for autonomous vehicles, and one that HS2 can’t match. In my view, the privacy and escape from any possibility of being annoyed by your fellow travellers that you get in a car is one of the main reasons why car travel is so popular – or am I sounding too unsociable in claiming this?

We often hear that HS2 will be “transformational”, which is a claim that has little foundation in my view. However, if – or should that be when – the autonomous vehicle revolution takes effect it will surely justify the use of that word.

That is not to say that the nascent autonomous vehicle revolution is without its challenges, or potential pitfalls. Whilst, as is so often the case today, the technology seems eminently achievable, there are hurdles to be cleared not the least of which is in the area of public acceptance (see footnote 4). Clearly, this is one revolution that is not going to happen overnight. Mr Fairhead cites a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), which opines “the earliest we could predict a near 100% highly automated UK fleet is by 2040, and a fully autonomous UK fleet by 2050” (see footnote 5). As befitting a learned society, the Institution is probably erring on the conservative side here as other reports are possibly more bullish (see footnote 6). One only has to look at the amazing speed with which, after a comparatively slow start, the mobile phone and portable smart technology revolution has taken over our lives to be wary about being overcautious with our predictions. Even so, Mr Fairhead takes the earlier of the IMechE’s two dates and points out that this is “only seven years from the expected completion of the full HS2 network”.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. Mr Fairhead states that “80 per cent of journeys between 50 and 150 miles are made by car or van (with around 15 per cent by rail)” and cites the National Travel Survey data as his source. I cannot locate his precise reference, but Table NTS0317 displays a broadly consistent result.
  2. Strictly speaking, what Mr Fairhead refers to should be termed “fully autonomous vehicles”, as autonomy can be vested in some aspects of vehicle control, such as parking, or require a degree of driver supervision, without removing the need for a driver altogether.
  3. See paragraph 105 in the report The Economics of High Speed 2, House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 1stReport of Session 2014-15, March 2015.
  4. See the Daily Mail article Are driverless cars pointless? Autonomous vehicles WON’T give us any more free time, says study, 16th September 2016.
  5. See page 1 of the report Autonomous and Driverless Cars, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, January 2016.
  6. See the Infrastructure Intelligence article Driverless cars could generate £4bn in motorway advertising by 2070, 28thOctober 2016.
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