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Canberra Autonomous Car Simulation



Public transport in Canberra

The city of Canberra presents a problem for transport planners. With both a low population (less than 400,000) and low population density, Canberra residents are dependent on the car.

Patronage of the public transport bus system, ACTION, is low and has resisted all recent attempts at being raised [ABS Census data 2011, BITRE Information Sheet 33: Recent bus transport statistics from 2009, Canberra Times: Adult bus passenger numbers stagnating, July 2012]. As reported in the Territory and Municipal Services Annual Report, 2013-14, customer satisfaction is just 65%, only 71% of services run on-time (within a 5 minute tolerance), and fares cover barely 15% of operating costs, leading to a community subsidy of around $120M per year. Patronage declined even after the introduction of $12/day pay-parking to 9000 formerly free car spaces in Parkes and Russell in October 2014. Each passenger boarding costs ACTION $7.96 and with an estimated 1.3 boardings on average being required to complete a one-way journey, each such journey costs ACTION around $10.35 and the rate-payer almost $8.80.

The problem isn't so much ACTION; with a decentralised and low density urban plan, Canberra was designed for the car. Attempting to provide any public transport system which balances costs with service level is a thankless task. A service with sufficient coverage and frequency to provide an alternative to private cars is too expensive. 1


  1. It is impractical for traditional public transport to be effective in Canberra

    The urban planning that gave us the "bush capital" may have produced one of the world's most liveable cities, but it created an impossible challenge for traditional public transport once decentralisation policies were reversed.

  2. The current public transport system delivers a poor service at enormous financial and social cost

    ACTION struggles with low patronage and high costs. Each passenger journey costs rate-payers $8.80, diverting badly needed funds from health and education. Even so, the poor service offered to travellers contributes to social disadvantage for those with no other option.

  3. Fully autonomous electric vehicles are very likely to be a commercial reality between 2020 and 2025

    These vehicles drive themselves. A fleet of them can be used to provide most of Canberra's transport needs for commuters, students and shoppers, supplying a 24x7, door-to-door service which is vastly cheaper than both traditional public transport and the private car.

  4. Autonomous electric vehicles help Canberra meet goals for reduced traffic congestion and greenhouse gases

    Electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions. When powered by electricity generated from renewable sources, travelling in them is "carbon free". An autonomous vehicle fleet can share journeys and optimise travel to minimise congestion and travelling times. An autonomous vehicle fleet efficiently reuses and increases the value of Canberra's extensive existing road infrastructure.

  5. A fleet of autonomous vehicles can generate an operating surplus, even whilst providing a huge volume of subsidised journeys

    A large fleet providing public transport for most journeys generates a surplus which could be used to greatly expand concessional travel, whilst removing all public transport costs from rate-payers.

    Public funds can instead be spent where they are most needed, on health and education.

  6. A universal, egalitarian, inexpensive and efficient public transport system is a social good

    Slow and expensive transport is an unproductive drain on the economy and a contributor to personal stress. Better mobility for all citizens has flow-on effects throughout the community and economy.

  7. Autonomous vehicles will be transformative

    • A better service than a private car: 98% of journeys can begin within 1 minute of being requested with a suitably sized fleet, 24x7. No hunting for a car-park, no refuelling or arranging servicing, no capital tied up in a private vehicle that is 95% idle.
    • Convenient and low cost on-demand, door-to-door travel for all.
    • Eliminates the burden on the public purse of public transport.
    • Dramatically reduces congestion, pollution and traffic accidents.
    • Improves personal and economic productivity.

The government is keen to remove Canberra's dependence on the car. Parking fees have been introduced and steadily increased2. ACTION's budget and services have been expanded. Planning has begun for a single-route light-rail system to connect Gungahlin and the city centre with an initial budget of around $800M. The goals behind these initiatives are laudable and deserving of serious commitment: combating increasing traffic congestion and pollution, reducing land devoted to car parks and revitalising the urban landscape, reducing transport costs, providing greater mobility, health and safety for all citizens, and reducing disadvantage caused by lack of access to efficient and affordable transportation.

However, no incarnation of the current bus network nor even an extensive light-rail system can be imagined which meets these goals, short of "starting again": abandoning the 100 sprawling, far-flung suburbs of the "bush capital" for a high-density new city. Hence, both bus and light-rail are distractions from meeting the city's transport goals, but are being pursued only because no better alternatives are perceived.

Perversely, Canberra's planners continue to increase the requirement for transport by reversing previous policies to decentralise employment and services into town and group centres, preferring instead to concentrate employment growth in Civic and Brindabella Park, both remote from areas of residental land development and population growth, and reached by increasingly congested roads.

We assert that the widespread awareness of a much better transport alternative is imminent, and the dramatic improvements it offers to the efficiency, cost and universal accessibility of urban transportation will make its incremental adoption inevitable within 6-12 years.

Public transport is a public good. Whether by providing access to education and health services, employment, or just facilitating independence and enjoyment of life, the benefits of increased mobility accrue to the traveller, their families and the community. Inadequate transport options diminish us all. Expensive public transport creates funding tensions which ultimately exacerbates social division.

Autonomous cars

The promise of autonomous or "self driving" cars have remained unfulfilled since the 1930's. However, developments in the past decade have finally made the commercial availability of mass-produced autonomous cars a strong likelihood within the next 10 years.

The 2012 KPMG white paper Self-driving cars: The next revolution presented a compelling case for the economic and social advantages and opportunities offered by autonomous cars and for a "mobility on demand" model based on a pool of autonomous cars. Their follow-up report from October 2013, Self driving cars: Are we ready? observed:

A year later the momentum around self-driving vehicles is astonishing. In some ways, the industry is moving even faster than we predicted. Rarely does a day go by without another announcement about a new technological breakthrough or a new joint venture. Traditional automotive manufacturers are teaming up with high tech companies; innovative start-ups are seeking and finding investors. The landscape is shifting before our eyes.
... The growth in self-driving mobility on demand services could mark the end of the two-car family ...
... we believe the market opportunities for self-driving vehicles and technologies are enormous, and innovative companies will continue to drive the technology forward.

The Accenture report The New Road to the Future: Realising the Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles in Australia from November 2014 reinforces this view:

Autonomous vehicles represent much more than a technology revolution; they require a complete transformation across the mobility ecosystem. There will be enormous disruption to established business models across multiple industries and the time is now to respond and position for the opportunity..
Australia offers the ideal market to test, produce and refine autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are already being tested on highways and roads, and commercial production has been flagged as three to five years away by most of the major car manufacturers.

Among the major players announcing intentions to deliver fully autonomous (also known as "Level 4") cars are:

The advantages, disadvantages and economic implications of autonomous cars have been widely discussed. For dense cities with well-developed mass transit, they may have relatively little to offer. However, for cities such as Canberra they provide a method of better utilising the existing infrastructure of an extensive road network in a manner which meets the goals the government has identified:

The Morgan Stanley research report on Tesla Motors (Feb 2014) included a detailed analysis of the economic benefits that they think will drive the development and adoption of fully autonomous cars in the next 5-10 years. They assert that when almost 100% of the cars on the road are autonomous, a "base" estimate can be made for annual savings to the US economy of:

These total to $US1.3 trillion, or about 8% of US GDP. Morgan Stanley's "bull" and "bear" estimates for these savings are $US2.2 trillion and $US0.7 trillion respectively.

The Eno Center for Transportation's report, Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles (October 2013) estimates the annual economic benefits of autonomous vehicles in the USA as a more conservative $US447 billion at 90% uptake.

The Eno Center analysed the US Department of Transportation's National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, Report to Congress (July 2008) to estimate that 93% of motor vehicle accidents had human cause as the primary factor, and quotes Hayes' analysis that autonomous vehicles could reduce motor vehicle fatality rates per person-mile travelled to a level approaching "those seen in aviation and rail, about 1% of current rates". Human beings make terrible drivers3.

The annual cost of road crashes in Australia is $27 billion according to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, or roughly $1150 per person per year. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's Injury among young Australians report from 2008 showed that transport accidents were the leading cause of death and injury of young Australians (aged 12-24 years) in 2005.

By removing human fatigue, distraction, inebriation and poor judgement as factors and by removing risks caused by speeding and running red lights, autonomous cars have the potential to significantly reduce injuries and death caused by traffic accidents.

Recognising that "the question is no longer if but rather when autonomous vehicles will appear on our streets and highways", the transport and logistics giant DHL is planning to use them to deliver innovative long haul and last-mile transport operations.

Recognising the economomic and societal benefits offered by autonomous cars, the governments of Singapore and the United Kingdom are building national expertise in the design and operation of new and more efficient and effective approaches to transport based on their use.

Electric vehicles

For all their "green" advantages, electric vehicles are still expensive. Whilst that is likely to change as battery technology improves and electric vehicles are mass-produced, like conventional cars, they represent an under-utilised asset. Most cars spend the vast majority of the day idle, and the capital cost of the car is defrayed over a small fraction of the potential travel utility it could be providing.

A great advantage of electric cars is their running costs: just a few cents per kilometre. Hence, the more kilometres travelled per day, the more the economic advantages of electric cars accumulate. But most current electric vehicles are hampered by comparatively short range and long recharging times which makes utilizing them continuously inconvenient or impossible. Managing them as interchangeable "transportation units" in a shareable fleet rather than as single vehicles is the key.

One approach is a small-scale (neighbourhood) car sharing scheme, but these are inconvenient: when you want a car, you want it in your driveway or at the office or outside the supermarket where you are standing. You don't want to negotiate with your co-owners or walk 400m to find it.

A fleet of autonomous cars provides a mechanism to implement a city-wide car sharing scheme at a scale which means a car is always available to meet your needs at a fraction of the per-kilometre cost that you'd incur if you owned it.

Aside from their contributions to greenhouse gases, the exhaust from conventional cars has a large negative effect on human health. The Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics working paper Health impacts of transport emissions in Australia: Economic costs, estimated that pollution from motor vehicles (cars, buses, trucks, motor-cycles, light commercial vehicles) was responsible for between 900 and 4500 cases of morbidity and between 900 and 2000 early deaths each year, with an annual economic cost of between $1.5 billion and $3.8 billion. This study estimated that by 2020, as a percentage of all motor vehicle emissions, cars would be responsible for 76% of carbon monoxide, 58% of nitrogen oxide, 67% of sulphur dioxide and 58% of particulate matter of less than 10 microns (PM10).

Electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions, and when powered by electricity generated from renewable resources, remove this burden of pollutants from the environment in general, and human health in particular.


The motivation for this simulation is to explore the practicalities of car sharing using autonomous electric vehicles. Specifically, we wanted to model the public and private transport needs of Canberra and then test the ability of a fleet of autonomous electric vehicles to meet those needs.

As well as the "macro" transport goals listed above (congestion, pollution, land use...), we frame our consideration with the transport goals of typical citizens, such as these:

Most people would recognise these scenarios: most of us live busy and complex lives, juggling many responsibilities. Simplistic transport options rarely meet our requirements, making us either reliant on our cars or at risk of social exclusion and disadvantage.

No-one really wants a light-rail system, or a bus system, or even a car, autonomous, electric or otherwise. What they want is to be able to get to work, school or uni, get home safely from a party at 2am, visit the doctor, pick-up the kids from child-care, and on the weekend, take them to the soccer in the boondocks of that new suburb. They want a way to travel safely, cheaply and quickly from door to door, whenever the need arises.

Steve Mahan has 5% vision - like you, he'd like to pickup up his dry-cleaning,
visit a drive-thru, see his friends

As Simon Corbell, ACT's Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development said in his introduction to Transport for Canberra - Transport for a sustainable city, 2012–2031 people want "... a transport system that puts people first ... [that] will make our city a better place to live, work and do business, and a more accessible place where it is easy for everyone to get around."

Urban and transport planning occurs in a context of multiple decades. Transport infrastructure is expensive with a long life. Urban plans, such as Canberra's, and the associated suburbs, housing, workplaces and leisure and shopping facilities have an even longer life.

Whilst not certain, the likelihood of autonomous vehicles becoming a reality in the next 6-12 years, is very high. Many automobile manufacturers, experienced commentators and industry experts would all have to be wrong for this not to happen. Yet currently, Canberra citizens are debating the merits of an $800M investment in a single light-rail line, which, if it is to expand to become a viable part of Canberra's transport infrastructure, will be just the first stage of an investment which would require over $10 Billion. Whilst no-one can feel confident that such a system will meet the needs of citizens even at such a cost, effective alternatives are not being debated. This simulation aims to test the feasibility of an alternative.

About the simulation

This simulation arose from a spreadsheet created by Warwick Cathro and Kent Fitch as part of Warwick's submission on the ACT Government's Low Emission Vehicle Strategy discussion paper. A spreadsheet can only go so far in confidently modelling scenarios as detailed as a city-wide autonomous car infrastructure, but a simulation enables assumptions to be reified, tested and corrected.

This simulation is the work of transport amateurs. Whilst it consciously attempts to err on the conservative side, it doubtless contains inaccurate assumptions, misunderstandings and plain old bugs. It is being made public in the hope of reducing these errors.

The simulation is written in javascript. All the data it uses is contained in the javascript it loads: there is no data in any database.

Main outcomes of the simulation

The following table shows typical outcomes when the simulation is run with the six pre-configured uptake scenarios which represent an increasing passenger load on a simulated fleet, rising from a low 45,000 journeys per day (equivalent to the journeys currently provided by ACTION) to 1.1 million journeys per day:

per workday
Cars in
Wait time at start of journey, minutes Empty running
(transfers) km
Time spent
Fleet energy
Operating surplus
<= 11-22-33-5> 5
ACTION load45,0002,10096.1%2.2%0.9% 0.6%0.2%26%56%172-12
Low120,0004,80097.3%1.8%0.5% 0.3%0.1%25%51%440-13
Medium300,00010,50098.0%1.5%0.3% 0.2%0.0%23%47%1,0402
High600,00018,50097.6%1.8%0.3% 0.2%0.1%23%42%1,97058
Very High750,00023,00098.4%1.5%0.1% 0.0%0.0%22%43%2,43078
Future1,100,00031,50097.8%2.0%0.2% 0.0%0.0%22%41%3,430167
Future High1,500,00039,00095.3%3.3%0.8% 0.6%0.0%22%39%4,470313

Each simulation run will produce different results because there is a random component to both the number of journeys starting each minute and the origin and destination of each journey: the results shown above are typical.

Apart from number of journeys, cars and chargers which are specific to each uptake scenario, these simulations were run with some common assumptions:

You are encouraged to configure the simulation to change these assumption and rerun the simulation for yourself. More information is available about these assumptions and how the model uses them. For example, a simulation based on some reasonable assumptions of using the Smart Electric Drive two-seater with a small range produces considerably more favourable results.

A graphical representation of the sensitivity of the operating surplus and wait times for the "Very high" uptake scenario to various parameters is available.

Some observations on these results:

  1. An autonomous car fleet can provide the same number of journeys as the current ACTION network at less than half the cost

    The simulation of the ACTION load of 45,000 journeys per day has annual costs (operating and capital) of approximately $58M, income of approximately $46M, for an annual loss of $12M. Hence, all travel could be made free for a cost to rate-payers of $58M, less than half of the rate-payer subsidy to ACTION.

    Additionally, travellers would enjoy an 24x7, door-to-door, on-demand service, with 96% of journeys starting within 1 minute of being requested and over 99.5% of journeys starting within 5 minutes, even during peak periods. Tailpipe emissions would be reduced from an estimated 92 grams of CO2-e per passenger km (see below) to zero.

    However, traffic congestion would increase, particularly during peak periods on major roads (due to major-route buses carrying up to 100 passengers being replaced by autonomous vehicles carrying between 1 and 4 passengers), making this an undesirable scenario. [Note that congestion can be reduced in this scenario by increasing wait times slightly by waiting for an extra minute before leaving a location if it is likely another request to a nearby destination will be received for that location. The poorer service levels, whilst still vastly superior to a bus service, may be acceptable, and would have the side-effect of reducing the required fleet size and hence costs.]

  2. An autonomous car fleet can service a very high load replacing most private cars journeys and generating a large annual surplus

    The simulation of a very high load of 750,000 journeys per day generates an annual surplus of approximately $78M. This surplus could be used to provide 75,000 free off-peak journeys per day, or provide funds for other community needs, or some combination of goals.

    Over 98% of journeys start within 1 minute of being requested and 99.9% of journeys start within 2 minutes, even during peak periods.

    Traffic congestion is dramatically decreased, particularly during peak periods on major roads. For example, the average occupancy of cars arriving is Civic and Parkes is 2 passengers, compared to an estimate of 1.13 for current journeys to work.

  3. An autonomous car fleet can service Canberra's future traffic loads using the existing road infrastructure and make a substantial contribution to government income whilst reducing transport costs for citizens

    The simulation of a "future" load of 1.1 million journeys per day generates an annual surplus of approximately $167M. The average occupancy of cars arriving is Civic and Parkes increases to over 2.1 passengers, so traffic increases at a slower rate than passenger journeys. Furthermore, at such high levels, forecasters predict that traffic scheduling algorithms that take advantage of vehicle-to-vehicle communication and coordination will smooth traffic flow and decrease travel times.

  4. At lower uptake levels, a higher car-to-journeys ratio is required to achieve acceptably short wait times

    With a small travelling population, requests to start a trip are more "bursty" and hard to predict. Hence more cars need to be deployed across the city just in case a burst of trip requests are received at a location.

    To see why, imagine an average of just 1 trip per minute leaves a suburb and trips for 3 consecutive minutes are delayed by the traveller. If cars were allocated in anticipation of their arrival, all 3, or 100% of the allocated cars will be idle (hence wasted). Conversely, if these 2 of these requests were brought forward to arrive in the same minute as the first request, then 3 cars would be required simultaneously, because it is unlikely that this small number of requests are sharing a common destination which would allow a single car to be used.

    Contrast this to a large travelling population, where 10 requests leave a suburb on average. In this case, it is relatively "cheap" to over-allocate 1 or 2 cars per minute (10% or 20% over-allocation), it is relatively unlikely that many of the trips will be delayed or brought-forward, and it is more likely that some trips will share a common destination, allowing a smaller number of cars to be used.

    Over-allocation of cars creates "waste", yet under-allocation creates long wait times, and the simulations with small journey volumes struggle more to balance these undesirable outcomes. The more unpredictable or "bursty" the requests, the larger the effect.

  5. Given the same levels of service, higher uptake levels generate a higher surplus

    The size of the fleet required grows slower than the increase in the journeys it needs to service because less over-provisioning is needed to cope with demand spikes for given acceptable wait profile and the probability of car sharing rises. Hence, each car spends less time idle (or travelling with just 1 passenger in peak periods) and more time earning revenue and defraying its fixed costs.

The simulation presents strong evidence that an on-demand, door-to-door, 24x7 public transport system based on an autonomous car fleet could be the best option for meeting Canberra's transport needs. The simulation demonstrates that a fleet of autonomous cars can provide a service that:

  • is at least as flexible, reliable and convenient as the personally owned car

  • is much cheaper than either car or alternative mass transit options

  • comprehensively meets the city's transport-related goals as outlined in the project objectives of the Capital Metro light rail proposal:

    • Increase the use of public transport by providing a superior alternative to the private car.

    • Optimise frequency and service reliability with an on-demand door-to-door service operating 24x7, utilising a decentralised fleet of thousands of autonomous vehicles less vulnerable to a single physical system failure than a single unduplicated transport corridor.

    • Affordable capital and operational costs with annual losses as modelled of less than 10% of the current ACTION service at low usage levels and significant operating surplus at high usage levels, which will allow for a significant community subsidy for transport for those in need; leverage and better utilise Canberra's extensive road infrastructure already built and paid for rather than constructing a duplicate in the form of rail.

    • Grow a more diversified Canberra economy through greater transport efficiency, and through the development of expertise and support in the deployment and management of a transport infrastructure likely to emulated in other cities.

    • Stimulate sustainable, urban redevelopment throughout Canberra by efficiently supporting both higher population densities and the traditional "bush capital" approach as options, and by releasing land used by car-parks to more socially and economically useful purposes.

    • Increase social and economic participation through increased mobility of all citizens regardless of location, age, health, physical capabilities and income.

    • Revitalise not just the Northbourne Avenue corridor but all Canberra's main travel routes by supporting higher population densities whilst reducing traffic congestion and travel times for all Canberrans.

    • Reduce carbon and other emissions across all of Canberra by using electric vehicles with "zero tailpipe emissions" and creating a very large and predictable market for renewable electrical energy.

Furthermore, assuming that industry predictions of commercial autonomous cars availability in the 2017-2025 time-frame are correct, the simulation results show that these compelling advantages can be achieved in the medium term and without an upfront demand on public funds, as the model assumes the overwhelming majority of the infrastructure is purchased using money borrowed at commercial rates (10%), and after loan repayments and operating expenses, is cash-flow positive (for large uptake) or nearly so (for lower levels of uptake) from the first day of operation.

Financial comparison between ACTION buses, private cars and an autonomous EV fleet


Real cost of a typical daily commute consisting of two 13.4km journeys a
ACTION Bus bPrivate Car cShared Autonomous Vehicle d
Excluding Parking$20.70$15.16$7.60
Parking e-$11.50-
Including Parking$20.70$26.66$7.60


a. Traveller's time (including waiting time) is uncosted, environmental costs are excluded
b. Based on the average 1.3 bus boardings per journey
c. Based on NRMA's running costs for a Hyundai i30, and with insurance costing $600 pa. AAA's Transport Affordability Index in August 2016 estimated the weekly costs of transport for a typical Canberra household owning two cars and with one householder member using public transport as $300 (excluding parking charges and vehicle depreciation) during the second quarter of 2016, broken down into these main components: car loan repayments: $120, fuel $59, registration/licensing: $38, public transport: $30, servicing/tyres: $29, insurance: $20.
d. Based on peak period fares, fleet sized for 750,000 trips per day, includes 32 cents operator profit per trip
e. Parliamentary Triangle, purchased in advance

Based on capital and operational cost and patronage assumptions from the Capital Metro Business Case, and assuming an annual cost of capital of 10% and an operating profit of 5% of capital, the equivalent unsubsidied commercial comparison cost of two journeys on the proposed light-rail line (Gungahlin to Civic and return) is almost $44.

The costs of running ACTION

From the Territory and Municipal Services Annual Report, 2013-14:

Hence, excluding the $2.4M for special needs transport in trying to create a "like for like" comparison, the rate-payers' contribution to ACTION was $7.7M (subsidy for concessional travel) + $92.3M ("service payment") + $28.6M (deficit funding) = $128.6M. To put this amount in context, the general rates revenue for 2013-14 was forecast as $338M, hence running ACTION (excluding special needs transport and fare income) costs rate-payers about 38% of their rates, or about $885 per household per year4.

The costs of catching a bus

Bus fares are cheap for the traveller: a weekday single adult fare using MyWay with a 5% discount (purchased by direct deposit) is just $2.70. The equivalent concession fare is just $1.34. Hence, the typical daily cost for a bus commuter is just $5.40.

The actual financial cost of the average journey is much higher: $10.35 per journey and $20.70 per day, but the difference is hidden in a rate-payer subsidy.

Other costs more difficult-to-measure include:

The costs of running a car

The NRMA Car Operating Costs Calculator provides an estimate for the "whole of life" costs of running a car: depreciation, opportunity-interest (or financing costs), registration, CTP insurance, repairs, and fuel. It does not include costs of parking and no default cost of insurance is supplied.

Running the calculator on the top 5 cars sold in Australia in 2013 and providing a fixed estimate of $600 pa for insurance, shows the costs per km range from 53 cents for a Hyundai i30 (1.6l manual) to 71 cents for a Toyota Hilux (3l manual 4x2) to 100 cents for a Holden Commodore (3l manual sedan).

Assuming Hoang chose the most economical option (the Hyundai i30) and had an impeccable insurance record, his daily return commute from Palmerston to Parkes of 14.3 km would cost: 14.3km * 2 (return) * $0.53/km = $15.16. He would also need to pay for parking ($11.50/day purchased in advance), giving a total transport cost of $26.66 per day.

Other costs more difficult-to-measure include:

The costs of using an autonomous EV fleet (as simulated)

The average journey of 13.4km costs $3.80 in peak-period with the default simulation settings. Hoang's daily commute from Palmerston to Parkes is a little longer (14.3 km) and his return journey would cost $8.06. At an average per/km cost of 28 cents, the results of this simulation seem low in comparison with current car costs, but they are actually similar in $A terms to the September 2015 estimates produced by Deloitte of 31 US cents per mile (just under 20 US cents per km). The Deloitte modelling assumes lower capital costs based on light-weight, two-person vehicles, but much higher fuel costs (about 12 US cents per km).

[According to the ACT Government's Transport for Canberra - Transport for a sustainable city, 2012–2031, "40% of people travel less than 10 kilometres to work" (page 6), so for a significant number of commuters, their autonomous vehicle fare would be less than their current MyWay fare.]

For the "low usage" (ACTION equivalent) scenario, the autonomous system loses about $12M per year, or about 80 cents per journey (45K journeys per weekday, 32K journeys other days), bringing the true cost of Hoang's commute to $8.06 + $1.60 = $9.66 per day.

For the "high usage" (750K trips/day) scenario, the autonomous system makes about $78M per year, or about 30 cents per journey, bringing the true cost of Hoang's commute to $8.06 - $0.60 = $7.46 per day.

Currently, the ACT rate-payer directly and indirectly subsidises ACTION by about $128M per year (excluding special-needs transport). If that same subsidy were applied to the "low usage" scenario, then after the $12M loss running the autonomous car fleet, $116m per year would be available to subsidise the 15 million journeys undertaken. But total fare revenue in this scenario is only $46M, and the total cost of operating the system is only $58M. That is, all travel could be made free for a cost to the rate-payer of $58M, less than half of the cost to the rate-payer of supporting the current ACTION system. Passengers would have the added benefit of a door-to-door, 24x7 service.

However, under such conditions (free, excellent transport) demand could be expected to rapidly increase, possibly to the "high usage" scenario of 750K journeys per day, in which annual surplus from the system before subsidies is around $78M with total costs of around $691M and fare income of around $769M. A surplus of $78M could be used to provide almost 75,000 completely free off-peak journeys of average length (13.4km) every day to concession travellers, which is over 65% more than the total number of all journeys serviced by ACTION and the rate-payers would be saved $128M per year ($885 per household).

Unlike bus, the autonomous car is flexible and convenient, offering a 24x7 door-to-door service. Hoang can easily break his journey to pick up shopping on the way home; Mary can drop-off and collect her son, and call in at the supermarket.

The environmental costs, at least as far as "tailpipe emissions" are concerned, depend on the way the electricity they consume is generated. If brown coal is used, an EV may require more CO2-equivalent per km than a 3l V6. If renewables are used, without considering the life-cycle costs of the renewables (energy required to construct and commission the renewable generator), tail-pipe emissions may be zero. It is not simple to generate a comparable equivalent CO2-e cost for various forms of transport, but it is very likely that a transport system based on renewable energy will generate much lower carbon emissions than one based on fossil fuels.

The autonomous fleet simulation estimates car occupancy for two representative morning peak period journeys: from Kambah to Parkes and from Kambah to Civic East. A typical "high usage" run shows an average car occupancy of around 2.2 for both destinations, which is approximately double the estimated average current "journey to work" car occupancy of 1.13 people. By increasing car occupancy for commuter traffic, an autonomous fleet lowers congestion on major routes during peak hours.

A summary example of the direct financial benefits of an autonomous EV fleet

Consider Hoang, the hypothetical and typical commuter from Palmerston, deciding whether to support (with his wallet and his vote) an autonomous car fleet or support "business as usual" with his economical Hyundai and ACTION.

The financial advantages of the fleet are very significant: commuting in his car will cost him $26.66 each day; over 220 work days per year that's $5865. Further, his household as ratepayers contributes $885 to ACTION, giving a total cost to his household of $6750 (excluding the transport activities of other household members: maybe, like the majority of multi-person households, they have a second car). Using an autonomous car fleet will cost him $8.06 per day, or $1773. Assuming the "high usage" surplus is not returned to rate-payers but used to subsidise concession travel, Hoang's household is almost $5000 per year better off, not including the indirect benefits of reduced congestion and pollution, increased safety and improved productivity.

If Hoang's household has a second car, they may keep one car or share one with other families for long journeys during holidays, or they may use part of their $5000 savings to fly interstate or hire a car for occasional trips down the coast; with an autonomous fleet, it is easy and cheap getting his family to and from the hire-car depot.

Next steps

A decision to replace a well-understood technology with one that is just coming of age is always difficult. Whilst no-one would want to be stuck in an age of candles and telegrams, few envy those who take responsibility for introducing change.

Nonetheless, because of the benefits it brings, "progress" is both inevitable and welcomed, and it is our responsibility to plan for its arrival and extract the greatest benefits we can for our community.

In planning for a transport system based on autonomous electric vehicles, amongst the major risks that need to be evaluated and issues requiring community discussion are:

  1. Fully autonomous electric cars: time-frame for commercialisation, performance and costs

    As the 2013 KPMG white paper notes, the number of participants developing autonomous cars and related system and their rate of progress is astonishing. It is sensible to build and maintain expertise in technical developments and to gauge the interest of major developers of the technology in participating in a large-scale deployment of their products.

  2. Commercialisation of rapid recharging technology and its installation and operation

    A large fleet of autonomous vehicles requires automated recharging facilities. Although Tesla has already deployed a large rapid charging infrastructure, and although automated (wireless) recharging for EVs has been commercialised, the combination of "rapid" and "automated" is not yet available.

  3. Effect on the electricity grid and generation capacity

    The ACTION-load scenario of 175 MWHr/day is probably not significant, but the 3,400MWHr/day required to support 1.1M journeys is substantial. By way of comparison, the Point Henry aluminium smelter near Geelong uses approximately 8,200 MWHr/day, and the current demand in the ACT averages around 7,700 MWHr/day.

    EVs with extremely large batteries may only need to be charged once per day, allowing great flexibility in coordinating time of charging with generator and grid capacity, but their extra cost (even if they were commercially available) and weight may not be worth the electricity tariff savings such an arrangement may attract.

    Just as large aluminium smelters attracted dedicated generation infrastructure, a large, predictable load to power EVs may encourage investment in very large scale renewable generation capacity.

  4. Fares and subsidies

    Amongst the considerations:

    • Capital and financing costs dominate, and these are largely determined by the size of the fleet needed to meet the peak loads. Hence, it seems reasonable to charge higher fares in peak times, if not to discourage peak travel (and hence "smooth" the load and reduce fleet size) then to recoup the costs the larger fleet imposes on the community.

    • Rational commuters will be enticed to use the fleet rather than private cars if the service is at least as convenient and is substantially cheaper. As noted above, the real cost of typical private car travel excluding parking costs and owner's time costs for driving, refuelling, cleaning etc is probably between $0.55 and $1.00 per km, regardless of the number of passengers. This simulation suggests that a peak fare of around $0.25 per km, plus a flag-fall of $0.40, and an off-peak fare of around $0.20 per km, plus a flag-fall of $0.20 is viable. Additionally, for almost all off-peak trips and for many peak trips (except those into town centres in morning peak and "back home" in afternoon peak, that is, typical "commuter" trips), entire cars, not just a single seat, may be booked with a single fare.

    • A separate flag-fall fare may be justifiable on the basis that processing a travel request, maintaining an idle car waiting to respond to that request and the movement of the idle car to the pick-up point incurs costs that are fixed regardless of the distance of the requested journey.

    • A service that generates an operating surplus will not divert funds from other services provided by the government.

    • Transport is a public good, and society benefits by subsiding travel for those in need. Hence it seems desirable to set fares such that an autonomous fleet can generate a surplus largely from commuter fares (that are never-the-less much lower than commuters would otherwise pay) and then apply at least some of that surplus as subsidies for those in need, and whose travel, whether promoting access to education and health services, employment, or just facilitating independence and enjoyment of life, not only directly benefits the recipient and their families but also benefits their community.

  5. Assumptions in this simulation's model: tease-out and justify or amend; explore sensitivities to assumptions

    The model enumerates known limitations, speculates on "known unknowns", attempts to justify default but configurable settings and hard-coded settings.

    A rudimentary sensitivity analysis of operating surplus and waiting times to various parameter settings has also been undertaken.

    However, an audience with a wider experience in transport will be able to identify errors and omissions in these assumptions, some of which may have a material effect on the outcomes. The model almost certainly contains bugs, some of which may be significant. The output can surely be improved to convey its implications.

  6. Community acceptance: trust in self-driving cars

    Surveys into views towards autonomous cars report generally positive attitudes, especially amongst younger people and when motivated by lower insurance costs (See, Cisco, J.D. Power and Associates).

  7. Community acceptance: public transport, car sharing

    For some people, their car is an extension of their lounge-room, and they are initially unlikely to want to use public transport, regardless of convenience or cost. Even in cities where private car transport is extremely expensive and discouraged, some people place such a high value on private travel that they are prepared to pay for what they perceive as added convenience (just as a very few are prepared to pay for private jets, or more commonly have corporate shareholders pay for them).

    However, it seems likely that for most people, the practical convenience and economics of a shared fleet will dominate their choice, particularly over time as comfort with the concept grows.

    Travellers will be able to avoid sharing in peak periods by booking a car for 4 travellers, but they will pay 4 times the per-km cost, but perhaps only one flag-fall. Is this to be encouraged, as a way of subsidising costs for "sharers", or discouraged as not reducing congestion? Could non-sharers be allocated cars only after sharers, meaning that their wait times would sometimes be greater? Should female travellers be able to stipulate "I will only share with another female"?

    Many people will continue to use their own vehicles, for example, trades-people transporting their tools in the back of the ute and people travelling to locations "off the grid".

  8. Sharing of roads by autonomous cars and human-driven vehicles

    It is likely that autonomous cars will coordinate their activities with the aim of increasing safety and optimising system-wide travel times and energy efficiency. Regardless of commuter and other private traveller uptake, autonomous cars will have to share the roads with human-driven vehicles (concrete-mixers, semi-trailers, tradies-utes, emergency services etc) for the forseeable future. Coexsistence with human-driven vehicles at all levels of autonomous vehicle uptake is vital.

  9. Suitability for special needs transport, including wheel-chair accessible models

    Transport often presents challenges for people living with disabilities. It would benefit the whole community if the autonomous vehicle fleet were made as accessible as possible to all citizens, some of whom may require specialised facilities to be available in part of the fleet, such as vehicles that allow people in wheelchairs to board without assistance, and vehicles with dedicated staff to facilitate travel for people with special needs.

  10. Privacy

    The community will need to determine a policy regarding privacy of travellers, dealing with retention and access of details of journeys and in-car video surveillance.

  11. Children travelling alone

    The community will need to determine a policy regarding unaccompanied children using the service.

  12. Economic disruption to petrol stations, car repairers, car manufacturers and retailers, bus drivers, taxi owners and drivers, and car-park operators

    The introduction of autonomous electric vehicles will adversely affect many businesses dedicated to serving the current transport infrastructure, especially those unable or unwilling to adapt. Such changes are inevitable, as advances in technology continually disrupt the status-quo. Many automotive industry skills will be readily transferable from a fleet based on the internal combustion engine to one based on electric batteries and motors, as many mechanical aspects of vehicles are largely unchanged. However, the community will need to determine policies which ease the transition and encourage retraining for those facing declining demand for their skills.

    Regardless of decisions on fleet ownership and management, it may be desirable to decentralise fleet maintenance to the existing commercial mechanical workshops across Canberra.

    Operators of car-parks are very likely to face declining demand with the introduction of autonomous cars, regardless of whether they are operated as a shared fleet. A shared fleet will require a significant number of charging stations (ranging from a few hundred for the ACTION-level uptake to 3000 for the highest levels of uptake with small capacity batteries as modelled with the Smart ED). These charging stations should be distributed across Canberra and, given the default modelled cost of $15,000 to purchase and installation and $3000 per annum for rental and maintenance, at least some of the reduced demand for undercover car-parks could be taken up by charging stations and associated cleaning and admin facilities.

  13. Government revenue from licensing, registration and fines

    According to the ACT Government's 2013-14 Revenue and Forward Estimates, motor vehicle registration and duties were estimated as raising $141M, parking fees and fines $31M, traffic fines $24M and driving licenses $10M in 2014-15. This represents a total revenue "at risk" of just over $200M (or if you prefer, a wealth transfer of $200M from citizens to government) if all private vehicle ownership were abandoned.

    However, many households will retain cars for convenience of distance travel, and many vehicles (utes, light commercial, trucks) are not replaceable anyway by a shared fleet of autonomous electric vehicles. Even if the private vehicle fleet were halved in size, the reduction in annual revenue of approximately $100M would be more than compensated for by the direct reduction in ACTION subsidy (over $120M) and substantial benefits arising from reassignment of land from car-parks to higher rateable uses, reduction in health costs due to morbidity and mortality caused by motor vehicle pollution and productivity improvements to the local economy supported by less congested travel and greater mobility.

  14. Government revenue from GST

    Widespread use of a fleet of autonomous vehicles would reduce total community spending on transport, and GST revenue would decrease accordingly. Money saved on transport would either be diverted to other spending and hence attract GST (unless spent outside Australia or on GST-exempt items), or saved. As a result, it is almost certain that total GST revenue would fall.

  15. Ownership

    Should a fleet of autonomous vehicles providing public transport be owned and operated by:

    • The government, as a monopoly, along the lines of ACTION.
    • As a community cooperative.
    • As a private-for-profit or private competing providers.

  16. Legislative/Legal

    Would a fleet of autonomous vehicles providing public transport be materially different from a fleet of mini driver-less ACTION buses?

    Who is responsible for loss of life, injury or damage following an accident? It is the vehicle supplier, the fleet operator, or someone else?

    Who is responsible for choices made by an autonomous vehicles, such as the often-raised ethical dilemma of weighing costs and benefits when an accident cannot be avoided? Is this something determined by the community/government, the vehicle supplier, or do passengers specify their preferences in advance, which are then used by the vehicles carrying them? (For example, "act as a selfish driver: preserve my life at all costs", "weight the worth of my life as 80% of the average life; weight the worth of people under 18 as 200% of the average life", ...)

  17. System infrastructure

    Amongst the issues requiring investigation are:

    • The system must be robust and able to cope with degraded capabilities of the system infrastructure (IT, power, mobile network). Failing gracefully is of the utmost importance.
    • The system must be designed to withstand attacks on its IT infrastructure
    • The public interface to the system must be easy to use by the entire community. It must accommodate frequent and casual users (such as tourists).

  18. Risk of overselling the benefits and applicability

    A fleet of autonomous vehicles is not a complete replacement for all private vehicles (even cars) and existing public transport.

    Special needs transport services would need to be retained, perhaps incorporated as extra services supplied by the autonomous vehicle fleet.

    Large families may not want to divide into multiple cars: they may choose to keep their "people movers".

  19. Vehicle characteristics

    Although most of exploration of this model has been based on a vehicle holding 4 passengers, simulations using a 2 passenger vehicle such as the SMART ED show that despite a smaller range, using reasonable cost assumptions it provides at least as good a service with a higher operating surplus. However, it is not clear whether its smaller size compensates for increased numbers required (and hence possibly congestion) during peak hour. Perhaps a promising direction is a mix of 4 passenger vehicles used as much as possible from the highest population density areas in peak hours which can be rested or recharged off-peak when the more diffuse traffic is carried by 2 seaters. This exploration is beyond the current capabilities of this model.

  20. Siting of recharging stations

    Recharging infrastructure must be sited to allow efficient connection to high capacity power and to minimise travel time for recharging. At least some recharging stations may be co-located with cleaning stations (allowing cars to be cleaned whilst being recharged) and maintenance facilities/workshops.

  21. Predicting uptake

    Planning the introduction of fleet capacity so that expected levels of service are achieved whilst developing the capability to maintain the fleet and associated systems.

  22. Estimating minute-by-minute demand

    Accurate prediction of demand for cars will help to optimise the transfer of idle cars to where they will be needed and will help to minimise waiting times and overheads. Demand patterns will be affected by many factors such as seasons, holidays, weather and special events. Prediction will always be imperfect.

  23. Servicing large but predictable demands

    Some demands will be large but predictable: 2,000 people leaving concert in Civic, 20,000 people leaving Bruce Stadium at the end of a football game, 50,000 people leaving a fireworks display at the lake. What's the best way to organise fleets of autonomous cars to transport such large numbers of people leaving from a relatively small area over a short period of time?

  24. Building and maintaining expertise in developing and operating a large autonomous car fleet

    KPMG, Morgan Stanley, Accenture, The Boston Consulting Group, The Conference Board of Canada and others predict that autonomous cars will have an enormous economic and social impact in the decades ahead. The current public transport problem facing Canberra could be transformed into an economic opportunity by attracting people to a city with an unsurpassed transport system and encouraging development of locally-based businesses to develop and support the required technical innovations.


Public transport in Canberra currently fails to meet the transport needs of the community.

By failing to provide a viable alternative to private cars it entrenches the many problems associated with private car travel including congestion, safety, pollution, land-use and cost. In failing to provide convenient transport to those unable to use or afford private cars, it entrenches social disadvantage which adversely affects the entire community. The current public transport service is also very expensive, requiring an annual subsidy from rate-payers of $885 per household, diverting much-needed funds from education, health and other community priorities.

It is important to understand that this problem has not been caused by ACTION and cannot be addressed with "tweaks" such as new timetables or raising parking fees. Rather, Canberra's low population and "bush capital" design forces a traditional public transport system to choose between a poor service with low-frequency services (long wait times especially out of peak periods) with sparse urban coverage (long walks to access and long routes and hence journey times), or unsupportable operating costs. The proposed light-rail does not help: indeed, by requiring the construction of a separate infrastructure it further dilutes resources available to be applied to the problem.

However, autonomous electric vehicles are now on the cusp of offering an alternative: a 24x7, on-demand, door-to-door service, providing mobility to all with the same convenience of the private car but at a fraction of the cost. This approach supports community objectives for reducing congestion, pollution and the land-use devoted to car-parks whilst improving transport safety.

At first glance, a fleet of autonomous vehicles sounds like science fiction, or at least 20 years into the future. However, the required technology is demonstrable and rapidly approaching commercialisation, in time frames that vary from two - five years (Audi, Tesla Motors, Google) to six - ten years (Nissan, GM, Ford). Independent assessments from KPMG, Morgan Stanley, Accenture, McKinsey, The Boston Consulting Group, Eno Center for Transportation, The Conference Board of Canada and others concur: it is very likely that autonomous vehicles will be successfully commercialised between 2017 and 2025.

The simulation implemented to model the financial viability of an autonomous vehicle fleet in Canberra provides strong evidence that under a wide range of car operational characteristics and journey demand levels, such a fleet can provide an extremely high level of service much cheaper than private cars and existing public transport alternatives. For example, a fleet of 23,000 autonomous sedans can service 750,000 "on-demand" door-to-door journeys per day, with over 98% of journeys starting within 1 minute of the request being received, and do so at fares much lower than undertaking the same journeys by private car, and whilst providing free transport for almost 75,000 journeys per day, all without requiring any rate-payer funding.

The implications for urban and transport planning are significant. Motivated by the myriad of problems caused by current transport options, the citizens of Canberra are currently considering a very large investment in a single-line light-rail system that will do almost nothing to address these problems, but at least has the virtue of "doing something".

It is hoped that a wider awareness of autonomous vehicles and the results of this simulation will prompt serious consideration of an alternative that meets all of the city's transport goals much more effectively, does so at much lower cost, and presents an opportunity for Canberra to take a lead in what will be one of the most transformative technological shifts of the 21st century.

Related work

Bibliography and References


  1. Dr Carleton Christensen presents an alternative view in his critique of the ACT Government's Transport for Canberra document. He asserts that ACTION provided a relatively popular and effective public transport system from the mid 1970's to the mid 1980's by providing "High service levels on local routes covering the whole of Canberra", "high-frequency, high speed, reliable inter-town express services", "synchronisation of timetables at interchanges, with guaranteed connections; maximum wait times 4-5 minutes", "modern, clean, comfortable, well-maintained vehicles and interchanges, with supervisory staff present at all times to ensure connections and passenger safety", "a simple, low-tech fare and ticketing system with strong emphasis on discounted periodical and pre-purchased tickets" and "little reliance on park-and-ride or ‘expresso’-style services direct from residential areas to central Canberra". He notes that "... in the five years to 1981, Canberra was the only one of the seven capital cities to record a decline in the share of workers travelling by car, from 83.8 per cent to 81.8 per cent", and examines the factors that have resulted in ACTION's declining patronage and ultimately led to the conviction that underpins the Government's Transport for Canberra which is that the best transport system for Canberra demands a new urban form. That is, rather than developing transport infrastructure to service Canberra's current urban form, Transport for Canberra assumes we must change Canberra's urban form to suit a particular transport system.

    Fifty years of public transport planning in Canberra by Paul Mees argues strongly that policy decisions which ignored past successes, rather than urban form, have led to Canberra's current inadequate public transport.

  2. "Parking fees in ACT Government car parks will continue to be revised annually to encourage the private sector to continue to supply some parking infrastructure, and to discourage private vehicle travel." Transport for Canberra - Transport for a sustainable city, 2012–2031, page 56.

  3. "Human beings make terrible drivers. They talk on the phone and run red lights, signal to the left and turn to the right. They drink too much beer and plow into trees or veer into traffic as they swat at their kids. They have blind spots, leg cramps, seizures, and heart attacks. They rubberneck, hotdog, and take pity on turtles, cause fender benders, pileups, and head-on collisions. They nod off at the wheel, wrestle with maps, fiddle with knobs, have marital spats, take the curve too late, take the curve too hard, spill coffee in their laps, and flip over their cars. Of the ten million accidents that Americans are in every year, nine and a half million are their own damn fault." - Auto correct - has the self-driving car finally arrived?, Burkhard Bilger, New Yorker, November 2013

  4. The latest census estimated the number of households in Canberra as 145,229 according to this report.

  5. "This article presents results from the first statistically significant study of traffic forecasts in transportation infrastructure projects. The sample used is the largest of its kind, covering 210 projects in 14 nations worth U.S. $59 billion. The study shows with very high statistical significance that forecasters generally do a poor job of estimating the demand for transportation infrastructure projects. For 9 out of 10 rail projects, passenger forecasts are overestimated; the average overestimation is 106% ... Our data also show that forecasts have not become more accurate over the 30-year period studied, despite claims to the contrary by forecasters. The causes of inaccuracy in forecasts are different for rail and road projects, with political causes playing a larger role for rail than for road." How (In)accurate Are Demand Forecasts in Public Works Projects? The Case of Transportation, Flyvbjerg, 2005

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Canberra Autonomous Car Simulation by Kent Fitch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.