Travelling in quiet isolation in a driverless vehicle unveiled last month by Hongqim in Changchun, China. Photo: Getty Images

Because New Zealand is not held back by legacy technology, autonomous network transit should be one key building block of passenger and freight transport in our cities. It’s a unique chance, writes Lars Herold.

In 1863 the London Metropolitan Railway opened. It set the paradigm for urban transit for the following 150 years. This paradigm is shifting rapidly. New Zealand should invest in urban transit of the future, rather than rolling out 150 year old technology in our major cities.

The old model has served humanity well for the last 150 years. However, it was neither convenient, fast nor cost efficient. If rail or bus riders could get the same cost and journey time, most of them would happily swap for a chauffeured, direct, private vehicle.

Under the 1863 transit paradigm, people go to a place where they don’t want to leave from (departure station); wait; cramp onto trains with thousands of strangers; stutter down a line stopping at stops they don’t want to go to; arrive at a place they don’t want to go to (destination station), then make their way to where they actually want to go by other means.

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Light rail, metro rail and bus rapid transit are extremely expensive and requiring massive infrastructure interventions in our cities. In most cases ticket revenues cover less than half of the operating cost and none of the capital cost, requiring massive ongoing subsidies. The  

The recently completed Sydney CBD Light Rail, for example, cost about $290 million per kilometre. The recently deferred Auckland Light Rail project was estimated to cost in the vicinity of $6 billion, perhaps more.

High population densities in major cities such as Tokyo or Shanghai may take some of the sting off the huge cost, but New Zealand’s cities are fundamentally medium to low density.

Auckland’s population density is just 2,600 people per km2, merely half of Tokyo’s (4,600 ppl/km2) and a fraction of places such as Seoul (7,900 ppl/km2) or London (5,600 ppl/km2). New Zealand’s smaller cities, starting with Christchurch and Wellington, are even significantly smaller than Auckland.

Let’s face it: New Zealand’s cities are fundamentally medium to low density places. For urban transport, medium density cities are the hardest, most expensive to serve with urban transport: You just don’t have enough load to justify the exorbitant cost of rail, but you can’t rely on shared, non-dedicated road infrastructure alone for cars, buses and trucks either. Our cities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

Making matters worse is slow planning, approvals construction processes in New Zealand. While countries such as China roll out infrastructure at heartbreaking speeds, valuable and important democratic processes in our country give New Zealanders a much greater say in how their cities are reshaped. With that come the inevitable protests, legal challenges and NIMBY protests.

Despite these downsides, the killer advantage of metro rail, light rail and bus rapid transit has always been its capacity to move high volumes of people around cities. This capacity advantage is fading fast. The fundamentals are changing rapidly against legacy rail and bus systems on three fronts: 

First, Autonomous Network Transit (ANT) as a new technology paradigm allows cities to meet medium and high capacity demand with infrastructure light, inexpensive, fast and hyper-convenient mesh networks using small, individual autonomous vehicles.

Second, the surge of working from home, flexible digital workplace models change human travel patterns away from high and ultra-high to more medium density transit routes.

Third, by 2030 urban freight will generate the same traffic volumes in cities as passenger, which metro rail, light rail and bus are entirely unsuited to serve.

The 1863 paradigm is based on bundling and aggregation of passengers into large vessels. Infrastructure corridors and trains are heavy and massively invasive, requiring 12-16 metre wide corridors and 12,000 sq metre stations every 900 metres – and without the option to deliver freight.

ANT achieves capacity by the fast drip feed paradigm: Small, automated vehicles tailored to fit one travel party operate at very high frequencies, delivering capacities of 10,000 people per hour on a dedicated, segregated traffic space similar to the width of a bike lane.

Mesh networks provide denser service coverage, with far more stops taking services closer to people’s homes, as well as directly into shopping centres, apartment buildings and other destinations. 

Because of segregation from other traffic, autonomous systems on the vehicles are simple and market ready today. ANT run passenger and freight on the same infrastructure, making maximum efficient use of scarce city space.

ANT is not to be confused with low capacity robotaxis or autonomous shuttle buses, which – when technically mature – may play a key future role in low density transport and funnelling “last mile” traffic into legacy rail and bus systems. 

In terms of freight, ANT supports anything from two full sized pallets delivered direct-to-dock of shops to parcel delivery – both of which are estimated to account for about half of all traffic in cities by 2030. It is paramount that our urban infrastructure solutions builds freight into the equation from day one. Light rail, metro rail and bus rapid transit is unfit to handle the freight task our cities face. 

Why this is relevant for New Zealand now?

Auckland and Wellington are currently investigating spending billions on new light rail systems. The deferred Auckland Light Rail was costed at around $6 billion. A Wellington Light Rail will cost similarly much. 

European, Asian and American cities are stuck with expensive, inflexible legacy rail systems in their cities for generations. New Zealand does not currently have much in terms of urban rail. This is a major opportunity for New Zealand.

Auckland and Wellington can show cities in the rest of the world how 21st century urban autonomous network transit is built. Smaller cities such as Queenstown can provide testbeds to rapidly trial and demonstrate these new technologies. 

Autonomous Network Transit should be one key building block of passenger and freight transport in our cities. Because New Zealand is not held back by legacy technology, we have the unique chance to become the global leader: developing autonomous technologies, creating high tech jobs and exporting New Zealand technologies to the world.

The 1863 approach to urban transport served humanity well for the past 150 years. But New Zealand’s energy and capital needs to be invested in technologies of the future, not the past.

Chief executive of autonomous network transport company Dromos Technologies and a founding board member of Green Light Group and wine media technology company Corkscore.

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