Automation technology will change Helsinki’s transport system, but how?

The transport sector is currently facing revolutions, that some expect to have impacts of the same magnitude as Henry Ford’s Model T.

The drivers of change are the paradigm shift to sharing economy and the electrification and automation of transportation. Is it possible for cities to steer the development?

The evolution of transportation has become wickedly obscure

The Model T democratized the mobility of the upper and middle-classes in the early 1900s, but simultaneously caused negative externalities that none had expected. Just like the Model T, the automation of transportation is expected to have numerous positive effects, but laissez-faire governance could also lead to grievous outcomes. Learning from past experiences with disruptive technologies, decision-makers must find the right balance between controlling the phenomenon and enabling innovation. At the heart of this process is the ability to treat technological development neutrally, as a political and value-driven choice that enables achieving agreed-upon societal goals, rather than as an inevitability or an intrinsic value.

However, the evolution of transportation has become so obscure that the conventional forecasting and modelling techniques fall short in supporting decision-making. Automation of transportation is, first and foremost, a socio-technical transition which makes it incredibly hard to model the outcomes comprehensively. At this time, other projecting methods such as scenario exercises and dynamic adaptive path techniques may prove to be a better help for steering the development.

Research examines the effects of system-wide automation

There is a significant body of work regarding the matter in academic literature but research gaps can be easily recognized. A vast amount of research examines the effects of system-wide automation or the transport system at a high market penetration of self-driving vehicles. Research focusing on the near future is hard to find. A great deal of impact studies concentrate on the traditional performance measures of transportation but considerably fewer discuss the wider societal implications. It also seems, to the author’s best knowledge, that studies imagining possible local service scenarios are completely absent.

Sohjoa Baltic contributes to the research

The current consensus seems to be that a future transport system based on privately owned self-driving vehicles would generate the most negative externalities whereas a multimodal system based on collective transport would capture the potential of the technology. One of the goals of the Sohjoa Baltic -project is to gain knowledge on how to organize more eco-friendly and smarter public transportation with the help of self-driving vehicles. For this purpose, Forum Virium Helsinki launched a research project in February involving ten stakeholders and experts from ten organizations dealing with transport automation. The study seeks to answer three questions:

  • What kind of collective transport system designs based on rubber tire self-driving vehicles could be implemented into Helsinki in a period of ten to fifteen years?
  • What criteria should be used to evaluate the success of the transition from manually driven to automated collective transport?
  • How do the expectations and opinions of experts and stakeholders differ?

Updates on the research will be distributed through Forum Virium’s channels and the final results will be published in July.

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