The development of autonomous vehicles has other benefits too. Every year some 1.25 million people around the world die every year from automobile accidents. Autonomous vehicles can use car-to-car communication to avoid accidents and will always follow the road rules. Cars could be made out of lighter materials for collision-free environment to make them much more energy efficient. Autonomous vehicles can also closely follow each other, in platoon fashion, improving synchronisation with traffic signals to avoid stop and start delays. Estimates by some leading experts state that traffic flow could improve by as much as 40-50% just by using driverless technology. That means less idling at the traffic lights, and less pollution.
The increased use of low-energy transportation options such as bicycle sharing, bus rapid transit and traditional subways are providing city dwellers with more flexible, cheaper, and less polluting options. For instance, China will be building over 87 new mass transit rail lines of nearly 2,500km (1,550 miles) of length in the next five years alone. If construction continues on this pace, then China’s cities will have half of the world’s metro tracks by 2050. Some novel mass transit concepts have also emerged, such as on-demand buses developed by the University of Tokyo, which replace fixed-route bus lines, by dynamically routing pick-ups and drop-offs based on user demand. These systems improve operational efficiency and reduce carbon emissions by eliminating unnecessary stops. Another new concept that has yet-to-be-proven is the 3D Express Coach, an elevated bus, which straddles over two lanes and hovers over automobile traffic.
But simply replacing a fossil fuel-burning car with an electric one – even one that can safely and efficiently drive itself and collaborate with other vehicles – will not be enough unless we adopt new use and ownership models and fundamentally change urban settlement. Rapid transit offers a partial solution, but they also have limitations. Public transit systems like subways and buses are extremely effective in moving masses of people from fixed point to fixed point. But they do not solve the first and last mile problem. Users may live too far away from transit points to walk. This problem is compounded if users have much to carry, have a physical disability, or it is simply too hot, cold, or wet. The creation of an Autonomous Mobility-on-Demand (A-MoD) network may solve this problem. Modelled after bicycle-share programmes, users will have access to a network of Lightweight Electronic Vehicles (LEVs) distributed at charging stations throughout the city. The swipe of a smart phone allows them to pick-up an electric vehicle at a charging station and drop it off at any other station.
Users can combine modes by taking a shared-autonomous LEV for short distances then transferring to any mass transit mode, finishing their trip by cycling or walking a short distance. The A-MoD network would consist of a fleet of electric bicycles, scooters, and a range of electric vehicles. This essentially forms a new mobility network for short-distance, low-speed trips that enable users to customise every single trip by selecting the appropriate vehicle for each trip segment – whether that's to work or the local grocery store. More importantly, these intermodal systems are complementary to mass transit, therefore dramatically increasing involvement in low-pollution transport schemes.
Unlike bicycle share programmes that suffer from redistribution problems (such as too many bikes in some locations and none in others), the A-MoD system could simply deliver a vehicle to a user. Once the user is dropped off, the shared LEV will drive on its own to pick-up another user, or to park itself for recharging. A-MoD systems essentially act as driverless electric taxis. Experiments conducted by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the campus of National University of Singapore, prove that autonomous pick-up and drop-off works, and the technology is economically scaleable.