Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG - I vividly remember my first car - a Fiat Millecinquecento (or 1500 for the non-Italian speakers). To think that car ownership may in the next decade or so come to an end for many people is poignant. But it might be inevitable.

The invention of the modern car in 1886, when the German inventor Karl Benz patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen, led to the widespread use of cars during the 20th century and changed the way we travelled and lived.

In the 1960s the personal car was the dominant mode of transport as most people lived in the spacious suburbs and used the newly-built freeways to reach their places of work.

As the car monoculture took root, inner cities began to deteriorate and public transportation withered. Unlike public transport, the private motorcar had the right to go anywhere, stop anywhere and park anywhere.

But as the second millennium progressed, the number of car owners increased beyond the planning capability of city and transport planners in the big metropoles. The traffic became insufferable and the dream of using private cars to conveniently get to work became a nightmare.

The problem, however, is not new. The same happened a century ago when the number of cars was crowding the dirt roads designed for carriages.

Our transportation monoculture relies on machines that are bad for the environment and are therefore conveniently taxed by the government. The growing traffic problems are bad for productivity, the economy and our blood pressure.

The solution is unfortunately not as simple as to build more lanes. A city cannot build itself out of congestion since it is the roads themselves that are causing the traffic. Economists call it ”induced demand” - when increasing the supply of something (like roads and freeways), the demand increases (more people travel to work by car).

Social scientists have collected enough data over the past number of years to illustrate that this is happening every time we increase the capacity of a road or freeway.

In fact, studies by Prof Turner from the University of Toronto and Prof Duranton from the University of Pennsylvania proved that there is a perfect one-to-one relationship. This “fundamental law of road congestion” means that if a city increases its road capacity by 10percent, then the traffic increases by 10percent.

People apparently like to move around and roads make this possible.

Many solutions to the congestion problem have been suggested, for example inner-city vehicle taxes, congestion pricing (paying a fee to use roads during rush hours) and dynamic pricing for parking (increasing the price of a parking place when demand is high leads to a greater availability and less driving around for parking). But perhaps, the new technology of autonomous cars may finally solve the problem.

Last week I wrote about the interesting technology of autonomous or driverless vehicles and how many companies are investing large sums of money in this technology to ensure that they remain relevant in the future. Just like the car a century or more ago, self-driving cars will change the way we travel and where we live.

One of the first changes that we will see is that the driverless Uber ride to the airport or some other destination will be cheaper and safer. The ride will be cheaper due to the cost savings on operational costs and safer since 90percent of accidents are caused by human error. Current figures prove that autonomous vehicles have a very low accident rate when compared with human drivers and will save millions of lives every year.

The delivery cost of a Quattro Stagioni pizza will be less or even free and there is no need to tip the driverless car or the robot delivering the pizza. And even those people that have to hang on to their car for some or other reason will find the commuting in and out of the city much easier due to the decrease in the number of cars owned by individuals and the lower incidence of accidents.

One of the costly problems is often finding parking in the city, but now the costly asset of a car can be used optimally throughout the day instead of standing idly in garages for an average of 97percent of the time.

Inevitably this would drive down the overall operating and transportation costs. It is envisioned that the autonomous vehicle services will integrate seamlessly with existing public transport to remain affordable for all users.

If we can overcome the car as a status symbol and relative convenience of mobility and independence, we may indeed experience that using self-driving car services can save a significant amount of the cost of owning a car - things such as acquiring costs, constant depreciation of the asset, interest, maintenance, repairs, fuel, parking fees, licence, insurance and driving time.

One thing is indubitable - in the coming years the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will dramatically transform our lives.

No business or individual person should ignore these far-reaching changes. The autonomous car is just one of them, but will usher-in an era where many people will not own a vehicle, thus changing how we live and travel.

Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology - Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

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