Clearer roads ahead…

October 2022 | Amir Zaidi

Whilst it is generally accepted that having significantly fewer and non-polluting electric cars on our heavily congested roads is desirable, the practicality of achieving this is also generally accepted as being an unlikely reality in the near future.

Despite there being a substantial increase in the number of electric cars being sold in the UK recently, there are still less than one million pure electric or plug-in hybrid cars, equivalent to about 3% of the 33 million total cars in the UK.

One of the factors limiting the uptake of electric cars is the lack of battery charging infrastructure in place for public use. There are also those households that do not have their own driveways on which cars can be charged overnight. In addition, electric cars are generally more expensive to buy than their non-electric counterparts.

Even if somehow the charging infrastructure could be put in place, the congestion and related issues such as parking and road accidents would still remain.

It is estimated that the number of cars in Great Britain will continue to rise in the coming years, with there being between 35 and 45 million cars by 2050, further exacerbating the issues.

The fact that most cars are typically only used for about an hour on average a day, means in addition to this being a social and environmental issue, it is also an economic one. Utilising an asset that for many people will be their second most expensive possession only 4% of the time is obviously inefficient, yet most households choose to own their own private car.  Whilst there are several reasons behind this, one is obviously the benefit of having immediate access to a private mode of transport. The private taxi alternative does not guarantee immediate availability, and on a journey by journey basis, is also significantly more expensive.

In an alternative reality, if we all decided to ditch our private polluting cars, and adopt the use of a nationwide fleet of autonomous electric vehicles (driverless electric taxis), would this address the issues raised above?

Firstly, to address the immediate availability point, there would need to be enough autonomous taxis to ensure we could all still arrive to work and school etc. on time. Analysing the National Travel Survey conducted by the Department for Transport (DfT), and making a few assumptions along the way (including some passengers being happy to share their taxi with others travelling in the same direction), we would estimate the maximum number of taxis being required during the peak car journey time of 8am to 9am on weekdays to be in the region of 7.7million in Great Britain. This implies there only needs to be 23% of the current number of cars in the UK to still allow all the same journeys to be completed.

Having only 7.7million electric vehicles would also require a lot fewer charging points, and given the taxis would not be privately owned, the charging points could be located much more flexibly. With the current generation of rapid chargers, we would estimate only 161 thousand chargers being needed in the whole country, costing about £7bn. Whilst this figure is still substantial, it is much lower than that needed if we all owned our own personal cars and significantly more practical to install (and could largely be delivered through the private and public funding already earmarked for the electric charging infrastructure).

Assuming a leasing model for the vehicles, and the current cost of petrol, diesel and electricity, we would estimate the all-in annual running cost of an autonomous electric taxi to be about 16% cheaper to run per mile as compared to privately owning a petrol/diesel car.

In addition to the environmental benefits and the financial savings outlined above, other advantages would include health benefits from cleaner air, increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to less time wasted in traffic, increased accessibility to car travel for the less privileged unable to commit to larger capital outlays associated with traditional car ownership, and potentially fewer road accidents and fatalities given the advancements in the autonomous vehicle technology.

All in all, perhaps not a bad deal for giving up our own set of wheels…

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