Guiding Disruption in Urban Mobility to Support the Low-Carbon Transition

Our newest blog post comes from Luke Rust, an alumnus of our MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures. Having finished up the course last September he has been investigating autonomous ridehailing services and he has written us this piece on the part they can play in the low-carbon transition.

Hong Kong at night

Urban mobility is reaching a tipping point. The UK government is being fined for illegal levels of air pollution while London remains the second most congested city in Europe and seventh in the world. In order to hit the UK’s carbon target, surface transport emissions must reduce by an average of 4% every year to 2030. However, decarbonising surface transport remains problematic due to limited powertrain options and, in 2015, related emissions increased by 2.1%!

London remains the seventh most congested city in the world, and reached its legal air pollution limit for 2018 in the first month
London remains the seventh most congested city in the world, and reached its legal air pollution limit for 2018 in the first month

Against this backdrop, urban transportation is primed for dramatic disruption. Continued rapid urbanisation, changing demographics, climate change and technology development are providing optimal conditions for change and ushering a potential urban mobility revolution. The fundamental disruptive entity may prove to be the fully autonomous vehicle (AV, level-5 automation) that has potential to disrupt the automotive, logistics and oil industries – alongside many others. Compounding rapid AV industry growth – evolutionary business models, artificial intelligence and substantial financial backing are driving the rapid rise of new mobility services from organisations such as Uber and Didi Chuxing, who envision a future of shared, autonomous fleets pressuring traditional taxi fleets, public transport and even private vehicle ownership with a low-cost service.

This forthcoming AV revolution is being undertaken with minimum policy or regulatory guidance and framed in positivist terms with the promise of high energy efficiency and low – even zero emissions. There is however potential for increased travel demand and urban sprawl combined with continued internal combustion engine use to have major negative energy and emissions implications.

Uber continues autonomous vehicle development in the absence of effective climate regulation
Uber continues autonomous vehicle development in the absence of effective climate regulation

My MSc study sought to assess the role of shared electric AV fleets in the UK mobility revolution and the implications of privately-backed ride-hailing companies developing them in the absence of effective climate regulation.

The research had two primary components:

  1. Beta testing the market leading AV fleet simulation software to evaluate early policy-dependent energy and emissions impacts for a UK local authority;
  2. Conduct interviews with academics, private sector actors and policymakers to explore possible AV deployment futures, understand the role for government and identify key priorities for policymakers to ensure AVs successfully support a low carbon transition.

The outputs of this work indicate that though there exists a significant opportunity for AVs to drive urban transport’s low carbon transition the following is relevant:

  • AV power trains should be electric, and regulation brought in to provide industry with the requisite targets. Transport and electricity policy must be developed in tandem to enable this;
  • Emissions mitigation is likely to be best facilitated by a well-structured, dynamic road pricing system across the UK surface fleet to encourage low carbon, efficient use of the road network;
  • The public sector should take a lead in procuring AV services to maximise road network efficiency, augment private AV fleets and increase transport capacity at times of peak network demand; and
  • Policymakers must have access to critical datasets which at present they are prohibited from acquiring, be equipped with better simulation tools and be empowered to employ novel policy instruments to ensure the AV revolution is realised in a climate compatible way.

There remains lots of work to be done

Future research should include:

  1. Modelling a dynamic road pricing system to understand societal effects and scale of environmental opportunity;
  2. Simulation of further AV use cases;
  3. Developing whole system carbon emissions understanding for AV deployment;
  4. Develop understanding of how optimisation of electric AV fleet charging patterns can provide dynamic load management of the national power network.

The government plays a key role in driving innovation across sectors but cannot maintain a hands-off approach to AV development and deployment. Utopia or dystopia? It must be clean!

Luke Rust

Luke RustHaving gained a 1st Class Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Surrey, the early part of Luke’s career focussed on delivering energy strategies for major automotive manufacturers and developing renewable energy projects across the UK.

This experience led him to pursue further study with the MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures at Imperial College London, where he specialised in the policy actions required to guide deployment of autonomous vehicles in London for environmental benefit, supervised by the UK Energy Research Partnership.

This research was conducted in collaboration with Immense Simulations, whom Luke joined following his MSc in September 2017 and now acts as Head of Commercial Development. Coincidentally, Immense CEO, Dr Robin North, previously led the sustainable transport module as part of the course.


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