How will autonomous vehicles disrupt other transport industries?

Jamie Stevenson
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E" E

Stop me if you've heard this before: autonomous vehicles will change the way you own, or use, your car. While this is true, stating it offers just as much use as describing water as wet, eliciting the response of -- well, duh. However, the autonomous car's effects will spread far and wide, not only to our own vehicles, but our cities and, in particular, other methods of public transport.

Yes, autonomous vehicles will have an enormous impact on how we use almost every form of public transportation -- with the plane, train and automobile industries all casting an eye to a future which promises much, but brings with it massive disruption.

Our recent study into the changing transportation landscape found that, while a growing number of people are currently opting for multi-modal transport (a mix of transportation, including cars, walking, public transit and more), the dawn of the fully autonomous vehicle could result in a significant drop in the use of public transit.

In-fact, the 2000 car users we surveyed believed that, once autonomous vehicles are available, public transit usage could drop by up to 40 per cent. How, though, is this such a significant threat?

Flight risk

What's your favourite thing about flying? Is it the seemingly endless wait in the airport? Is it the delays, or perhaps the extensive security checks? While the prospect of flying often seems exciting, the reality is always much less so -- indeed, in terms of air travel, it is definitely the destination, rather than the journey that's important.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why autonomous vehicles could massively disrupt the airline industry. Only a couple of years ago, Sven Schuwirth, a senior strategist at Audi, stated that within 20 years, autonomous vehicles could result in the end of domestic flights.

During the interview with Dezeen, he explained that the ability to use an on-demand autonomous car service would help improve the experience of taking shorter trips, or longer domestic ones.

Describing the scenario, he said, "Your car wakes you up at four o’clock in the morning, picks you up and drives you autonomously the entire way from Munich to Berlin. You can sleep, you can prepare for your meeting, you can call your friends and family, do whatever you want and you enter Berlin in a very relaxed mood."

While the reach of autonomous cars is unlikely to extend across oceans just yet, disruption of the domestic market could cause serious problems for airlines whose revenues are often heavily reliant on such flights. Indeed, in 2015, domestic flights accounted for 58 per cent of revenue at United Airlines, 69 per cent at Delta and 70 per cent at American Airlines.

Forecasting the end of domestic flights, however, seems to be an exaggeration. Many people would still prefer to fly for four hours rather than sit on in a car for double or even triple that time, even if it is autonomous, while if everyone hoping to take to the skies were to resort to the roads instead, traffic congestion would become unbearable. Disruption rather than obliteration, then, looks likely for the domestic airline industry.

So what about other modes of public transit?

Transit turmoil

The autonomous car and, in particular, autonomous Car as a Service (CaaS) represent hugely disruptive forces for buses and trains. While planes have both domestic and international flights, buses and trains typically rely upon providing transportation for more straightforward routes.

This places them in the firing line of the autonomous vehicle, which, in theory, will make moving from A to B a far more pleasurable experience for the passenger. It'll also call an end to the 'last mile problem' -- a common term used to describe the difficulty in transporting a passenger from their mode of public transit (say the bus station), to their final destination.

Indeed, autonomous CaaS offerings -- Uber with driverless cars, essentially -- could impact both car ownership and public transit, with 64 per cent of respondents in the HERE study saying that they would use CaaS because it is cheaper than taxis or ride sharing, and it would give them freedom to travel whenever they want to, unlike public transit which adheres to strict timetables.

According to a recent study, trains will likely remain the transit option of choice during peak times in urban areas, but at times where there are fewer trains (off-peak hours, for example) autonomous vehicles will likely become favoured.

This would have a knock-on effect on prices, with peak train tickets getting more expensive to take up the slack, which could then drive even more passengers into the welcoming arms of the autonomous vehicle.

While this may not all happen at once, the seismic shift that the autonomous vehicle represents is now an inevitability facing other transit industries, who are already busy adapting to the challenge with autonomous tech of their own.

Yet, the convenience and excitement surrounding autonomous cars represents something entirely new, and in but a few years, we could be looking at a completely new way of using public transit.

Topics: Transit, Automotive, Autonomous cars, Autonomous World, Features