Traffic emissions – will autonomous cars solve the problem?

Author: George Mangion 
Published on Malta Today 14th March 2018

Quoting the latest country-specific EU semester report on Malta issued in Brussels – it makes happy reading. It showers the Muscat government with accolades on the areas of job creation, stellar GDP growth, controlled inflation, a healthy balance of payments as after 30 years of annual deficits it managed to register a modest surplus.

The welfare system and healthcare situation is undergoing a massive investment through private-public partnerships to guarantee free medical attention to all citizens while opening the possibility of medical tourism as a niche market. So where is the Achilles heel of this tiny island with no natural resources located at the periphery of Europe.

The answer comes loud and clear – it is the traffic congestion and heavy emissions from ageing cars. It is no secret that prosperity and latent affluence has opened the flood gates for importation of cheap second-hand cars so that the roads are highly congested and this mars the environment.

Naturally traffic congestion comes at a cost to business as commuters spend a longer time waiting in endless queues or stuck in traffic, bumper to bumper. A study commissioned by the University has revealed that commuters and businesses have to put up with “significant economic costs”. Such a study found that costs include extra time spent, time spent, additional fuel costs, accidents and economic costs of congestion.

These are projected to rise to a staggering €721 million by 2025. Is it a coincidence that Government announced that by 2025 it plans to spend €700 million to improve the road infrastructure? But is widening of roads and building of fly-overs a solution to ease traffic congestion and curtail island emissions? Not likely.

The Brussels report said that inter alia, our green gas policy lacks a clear target on reducing emissions from transport. It is true that the Muscat government has invested millions to convert to LNG the BWSC/Delimara plant previously burning heavy fuel oil to generate electricity. On its own this has improved considerably the emissions in the south where such heavy plants are located.

Back to the subject of traffic, we are told that it is a heavy contributor responsible for over 21 per cent of the greenhouse emissions. In the UK, a new study revealed how air pollution, but not traffic noise, is linked to an increased risk of having low-birth-weight babies. Previous studies have tied road traffic air pollution to low birth weight. Road traffic produces noise as well as pollution which is associated with adverse health effects, such as sleep disruption, increased blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

This has been revealed in a study by Rachel Smith at the School of Public Health of the Imperial College in London.

Back to Malta, it has been swamped in emissions – a condition suffered by most modern cities exacerbated by a frail road infrastructure and the ever-growing number of private and heavy construction vehicles. Close to 380,000 ageing vehicles (almost one for each resident – mostly imported second-hand) clog the narrow streets and this is making commuting a daily nightmare as more tourists arrive. Welcome to the streets of Istanbul.

The solution is not an easy one. The growing level of car emissions creates an ecosystem of a carcinogenesis cloud which is not healthy. Efforts have been made to remove registration tax on importation of electric cars (not hybrid) but they are still expensive and the island has a limited number of charging bays. The idea of a pool of electric robo-taxi is still alien and Uber does not operate here. As stated earlier car ownership is endemic.

Internationally we read about studies regarding the future use of self-drive cars and the prediction that this will make car ownership less popular. If robo-taxis become mainstream then due to their versatility there will be a drastic drop in the number of cars on roads.

By 2025 Europe will witness a number of tried and tested autonomous vehicles in its big cities. Are we ready in Malta to face this revolution? Will our town planners be nifty to embrace the challenge of fewer cars on the roads and only design flyovers and super structures to meet the restricted future demand for novelties powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

There is a massive interest by car manufacturers towards autonomous vehicles which by default has halted the drive for design of low emission vehicles running internal combustion engines. There is an Eldorado drive to acquire technology and software that leads to the manufacture of safe and low-cost electric cars autonomously driven – all fearlessly relying on use of multiple sensors and advanced computers to transport passengers from A to B in comfort (see picture).

All this at one third of the cost of traditional car ownership. The multitude of cars needed to be built in robo-taxi mode will probably force car ownership to drop by one half over a twenty year horizon. Is this the death knell for car ownership in big cities? Both Uber and Lyft have their own carpooling products that they’ve been aggressively marketing to commuters over the past years.

It goes without saying that autos of a bygone age such as the early Ford “T’cars, (affectionately codenamed Tin Lizzie in 1908) once great feats of mechanics, have now evolved into great feats of electronics. Armed with sensors like Mobileye they now have the capability of parallel parking, seeing and heeding oncoming traffic, predicting merge time and gauging accurate speed.

Readers may disagree saying all this is pure fantasy not a true prediction of what may hit our narrow roads in the medium term. Regardless if we take an Ostrich like attitude, yet with AI it is expected to empower commuters to use smartphones to borrow cars temporarily to drop them off where they want. Car ownership will gradually become a status symbol for enthusiasts/collectors but the general public will gradually endear itself to cheaper rides and not having to bother where to park. Park and ride schemes will die a natural death.

It is unbelievable but true – with the introduction of autonomous cars, electric vehicles won’t actually need drivers, and could theoretically come to your door. In fact, some reports even say that Europeans will prefer autonomous cars by 2035 and that their sales will surpass conventional, fossil fuelled vehicles by 2038. Can our government wake up to the Tsunami of technology that will in a decade hit our shores? Will robo-taxis push Tallinja behemoths into a Dodo world?

George Mangion

Author: George Mangion 
Published on Malta Today 14th March 2018
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