The potential roles of electric Autonomous Vehicles in the Transportation sector

Updated: Mar 2

The rise of technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence have a substantial influence on our daily lifestyle with the transport sector being no exception. Fully autonomous vehicle (AV) technology networks are getting closer to reality with AV technology receiving both positive and sceptical criticism (Bagloee, et al., 2016).

Companies such as Nissan, Tesla, Amazon, Uber, Google, etc. are all developing various levels of autonomy with Tesla and others widely achieving level 3 self-driving capabilities with autonomy levels being described in Figure 1 as per SAE J3016 Standards. As estimated by McKinsey, AVs implementation into the transport network will have a direct societal value between 0.2 to 1.9 trillion dollars annually by 2025 with the AVs being driving forces for the future economic model of cities and countries (McKinsey, 2013).

Figure 4 SAE Standard J3016 - Levels of driving automation (SAE, 2019)
Figure 1 SAE Standard J3016 - Levels of driving automation (SAE, 2019)

Safety and crashes

Autonomous vehicles aim is to improve the transportation sector by reducing crashes, energy consumption, pollution and congestion as well as increasing transport accessibility. As currently inevitable, accidents and human casualties in transportation networks is present, with 90% of car crashes blamed on human errors with the UK road deaths reported at 1,748 for 2019 (DfT, 2020).

Studies suggested that if level 0 or 1 vehicle automation is implemented to all vehicles, a reduction of 1/3 of accidents could be achieved by equipping cars with adaptive headlights, forward collision warnings, lane departure warnings and blind-spot assistance (IIHS, 2010) (JS, 2011) (CM, 2008). Australian research went further to indicate that collision warnings technology could prevent 25-35% of serious crashes in Australia (Australian Government, 2017).

Efficiency and productivity

Congestion especially on motorways have obvious consequences of increased travel time, increased emitted pollution and increased chance of accidents (Bull, 2003). By increasing the use of AVs, productivity and efficiency of transport networks will improve by increasing average traffic speeds and by safely reducing distances between vehicles (Australian Government, 2017). This will significantly increase road capacity with studies estimating up to 5 times increase (Fernandes & Nunes, 2012).

Furthermore, AVs will positively affect the reduction in traffic delays and stoppages from traffic incidence as well as encourage the use of public transport through low-cost, on-demand first and last-mile travel such as Uber services (Australian Government, 2017) (JM, et al., 2014). However, it should be argued that more comfortable and convenient travel of AV on-demand services may encourage a shift away from public transport.

Moreover, AV technology connectivity features were found to provide an opportunity to mitigate congestion as found by Dresner and Stone (K & P, 2004). A reservation-based system designed for connected AVs can perform twice better as traffic lights since more congested traffic conditions could be handled more smoothly.

As an advantage, AVs will provide alternatives to private vehicle ownership as well as give an opportunity for private transportation to those unable to drive, however, access to AV mobility may increase the number of trips made, which creates an additional demand to an already overloaded transportation network which is not desirable. However, AVs will remove the need for engaging physically with driving, allowing the passengers to utilise the travel time on other productive activities.

Additionally, the logistics industry could be benefited in terms of applications of platooning which will improve traffic safety, reduce cost and fuel consumption due to reduced drag and increase the number of goods able to be transported on single freight trips (Australian Government, 2017) (ACEA, 2017).

Public transport and private car ownership

AV technologies can be a vital player in the development of future public transport networks. AVs can boost the use of driverless taxis and similar car-sharing schemes consequently providing more convenience for households with ownership of private vehicles being less favourable and more costly as illustrated by BCG which suggest AVs will lower by 30% the cost per passenger kilometre (BCG, 2020).

Automated public transport services can deliver increased social benefits by providing new mobility options in areas not linked by public transport and also will provide reductions in the need for investments in new services and infrastructure required by future demand (Australian Government, 2017).

As society moves away from vehicle ownership, annual fixed costs on maintenance and parking charges will be eliminated with the extensive use of AV car-sharing services. This will also remove the need for parking spaces in busy city centres which can free up space and provide areas for further urban growth.

Nevertheless, the introduction of AVs will potentially deliver a positive societal impact by providing mobility to people with disabilities, older people and children who currently have difficulty accessing transport services in their community (Australian Government, 2017) (Bagloee, et al., 2016).

However, to encourage the uptake of this technology, insurance of accessibility considerations is of paramount importance. Provision of wheelchair accessible AVs when human drivers are not present should be thoroughly evaluated.


With an efficiently programmed interconnected transport network, come benefits not only of social improvement but also environmental. Throughout the years regardless of AVs, the fuel consumption of vehicle engines has extensively improved subsequently, cutting customers fuelling costs and in parallel reducing the carbon emissions of vehicles reducing their environmental burden.

The adoption of AV technology from even levels 1, 2 and 3 with features such as cruise control, graduate acceleration and deceleration is said to have an opportunity to optimise driving and enhance fuel economy by up to 10% (NRC, 2010). Platooning has shown both for freight and passenger that CO2e emissions can be reduced between 16-20% from the trailing vehicles and by up to 8% from the lead vehicle (ACEA, 2017)(Somers & Weeratunga, 2015).

However, the environmental impacts of AVs will extensively depend on the extent of utilising low or zero-emission technologies such as electric or hydrogen. As discussed before, AVs have the potential to increase the frequency of trips made with a reduction of public transport use, with travel without passengers at certain times having wasteful mileage travelled with environmental impacts if non-net-zero vehicles are used.

Autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation and the positives far exceeding the negatives however some features of the system should be done in collaboration with all the stakeholders to take full advantage of the social and environmental benefits AVs bring to mobility.


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Bagloee, S. A., Tavana, M., Asadi, M. & Oliver, T., 2016. Autonomous vehicles: challenges, opportunities, and future. J. Mod. Transport. (2016) 24(4):, p. 284–303.

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