Canberra Autonomous Car Simulation
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Canberra Autonomous
Car Simulation


  1. A universal, egalitarian, inexpensive and efficient public transport system is a social necessity

    Slow and expensive transport is an unproductive drain on the economy and a contributor to personal stress. Better mobility for all citizens is good for the whole community and economy.

    It is not just the economically disadvantaged, the young and the elderly who are dependent on public transport: everyone relies on someone who relies on public transport, and hence we all rely on public transport.

  2. Canberra's efficient bus network of the 1980's was dismantled and it isn't returning

    Despite having the nation's 2nd-highest public transport patronage in the 1980's, Canberra's administrators ignored the evidence and came to believe the myth that the density of the "bush capital" made effective public transport intractable. Piecemeal densification and light rail distractions cannot provide mobility for the city's growing population and footprint.

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

    Transport Canberra struggles with both low patronage and high costs. Pre-COVID, each passenger journey diverted $7.60 from public housing, health and education. Even so, the poor service offered to travellers contributes to social disadvantage for those with no other option.

  4. Fully autonomous electric vehicles are very likely to be a commercial reality between 2023 and 2025

    These vehicles drive themselves. Used as a shared fleet, they can provide most of Canberra's transport needs for commuters, students and shoppers, supplying a 24x7, door-to-door service vastly cheaper than both traditional public transport and the private car.

  5. 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, travel 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.

  6. 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.

    Spending on public housing, health, education and other community services can be increased.

  7. Autonomous vehicles will be transformative

    • A better service than a private car: 95% of journeys can begin within 1 minute of being requested with a suitably sized fleet, 24x7. No hunting for a car-park, refuelling or arranging servicing and no capital tied-up in a private vehicle that sits 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.

Before 2025, a fleet of publicly owned and operated electric autonomous cars in Canberra will be able to:
  1. provide much cheaper and more convenient on-demand, 24x7 door-to-door travel for all
  2. dramatically reduce congestion, pollution and traffic accidents
  3. improve equality, personal well-being and economic productivity.

This document contains:

You can find out more about the model behind the simulation and configure and run the simulation without reading this background.

The success then failure of public transport in Canberra

30 years of ignoring past successes

The entrenched belief that public transport could never work in low-density Canberra was thoroughly debunked by former RMIT transport planning expert, Dr Paul Mees, in his response to the ACT Government's Transport for Canberra plan of 2011-12.

In this and his comprehensive study, Fifty years of public transport planning in Canberra, Mees detailed how and why Canberra's public transport successes of the 1980s were systematically and skilfully dismantled by the vested interests advocating for large road projects (principally the NCDC) and for urban infill (principally developers).

Mees showed that between 1973 and 1985, per-capita patronage of public transport in Canberra doubled whilst it declined in other Australian cities. He demonstrated why efficient route planning, more frequent services and making transfers reliable caused patronage to soar at the same time as per-trip subsidies fell, resulting in Canberra having the lowest usage of private cars of all Australian cities.

Data from Mees Appendix table 1 updated and extended with ABS population and Transport Canberra boarding data.

With a proven popular and cost-effective basis for the future, Canberra's public transport fortunes seemed assured. But this success was denied and undermined by a 1991 report initiated by business and property developers, Towards a More Sustainable Canberra (Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy), which ignoring the unambiguous if inconvenient evidence of the previous decade, concluded Canberra's low density meant it was a "car city" and public transport could only be effective with the developer-sought consolidation and "urban villages" to provide sufficient demand for light rail.

Most observers drew three conclusions from the Sustainable Canberra report: the only good form of public transport is light rail; light rail requires high-density development to succeed; therefore, public transport is a tool of the development lobby – who had, after all, sponsored the report – and a way of justifying unpopular plans for flats, high-rises and a bigger central business district. This enabled advocates of continued car dominance to argue that they were defending the ‘bush capital’ against greedy developers (e.g. Morison, 1995). Equally importantly, by not mentioning the new transport policies of the 1970s, and rejecting the evidence showing they were beginning to succeed, the report helped cement the image of Canberra as a city in which the car was part of the DNA, a city that could never change.

Fifty years of public transport planning in Canberra, Mees 2012

The fall-out

Funding for public transport was progressively removed, an effective operation was dismantled, and so began Canberra's public transport decline to patronage rates of half those of 1985, very high per-trip subsidies, and "customer satisfaction" of Transport Canberra's services dropping to a new low of 62% in 2018-19 (TCCS Annual Report 2018-19, Figure 1, page 23).

As predicted by Mees, the ACT Government's 2012 Transport for Canberra plan has not improved patronage, satisfaction or operating efficiency. Public transport debates are diverted to how a tram line from Woden to Civic will be routed, constructed and funded, despite it offering a slower and less convenient service. The trimming of routes and removal of hundreds of bus stops to help fund the introduction of light rail from Gungahlin unsurprisingly resulted in yet further drops in satisfaction and patronage across much of Canberra. It seems nothing was learnt from Canberra's public transport boom of the 1980's.

Except of course, it was: the neglect of Canberra's public transport and the promotion of the "car city" myth was deliberate. The motivations were never about transport but about promotion of an urban design ideology based on increasing land values by centralising employment, removing public housing, rezoning parks and community land and building high-rise. Dismantling the effective "low-density" public transport network was a necessary first step in re-educating the community into accepting the "inevitable" need for the high-density wanted by property developers.

The high cost of running the first stage of light rail is now locked-in for 20 years, and will continue to divert funds from public transport and other community services. The COVID-induced reductions in travel during 2020 facilitated by better communications and new ways of working, connecting and being entertained will not be completely reversed as the convenience of less commuting and travelling in general are highly valued. The expansion of light rail has now been delayed several times, with the original planning being mugged by financial reality, undermined by long-term reductions in demand for travel and overtaken by technology.

One of the Sustainable Canberra authors and vocal proponents of the tram, Peter Newman, now doubts further light rail lines should be built, instead advocating far cheaper and more flexible "trackless trams".


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 of reducing congestion and pollution and increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness, we frame our consideration with the "personal" transport goals of typical citizens, such as these:

  • Mary lives in Farrer and works in Barton. Each weekday morning she drives her 3 year old son to child-care in Narrabundah, drives to work and collects him after work. She often likes to visit the supermarket at Torrens on the way home because it stocks some of her favourite items. Today she has a dental appointment at lunch-time in Braddon - where will she park? Next Saturday she wants to watch her nephews play soccer, but she has to get to Amaroo by 8:30am for kick-off.
  • Joe lives in Scullin and works stocking shelves in a supermarket in Weston three nights a week. His shift starts at 9pm and ends at 1am. He is also studying part-time at the Bruce CIT, and is usually in a rush to leave the CIT and get to Weston to start his shift.
  • Edith is 85 and feels she really shouldn't be driving, yet is not willing to give up her license and hence her independence. Her arthritis makes it impossible for her to check the air in her car's tyres, and to save money, she hasn't had the car serviced for three years. She drives her husband to medical appointments each fortnight and ferries home the bulky supplies his condition requires. About once a month she drives to her son's house and baby-sits his children, getting home after 11pm.
  • Blake is out late again with his work colleagues. It's 2am and he's in a club in Kippax, wondering whether to bother even trying to get a cab to get back to Downer, or whether he should just risk getting a lift with Jed, who really shouldn't be driving either. But how will he collect his car from Kippax tomorrow?
  • Jamie lives in Kambah, works at Campbell Park and is studying part-time at ANU. She often needs to work late, and also spends long nights at the Chemistry lab at the university, but has to leave before the last bus. She often feels anxious about her safety waiting at the bus-stop and walking home in the dark, and she's wondering whether she should give up uni or buy a car.
  • Henry is in year 12. He doesn't yet have his driving license, and relies on his mum to take him to his weekend shifts at the pizza restaurant. The nearest library is 10km from home, but he enjoys studying there, so he puts up with the travel. His college day starts at 10am on 3 days of the week but his only option for getting to school is catching the bus at 7:30am each day. Henry's parents are separated, and although he'd like to visit his dad more often, the return bus journey takes over 2 hours on the weekend.
  • Jayne from Higgins is a single mother of two young children. She suffers from a spinal condition which makes walking difficult and slow. She is unemployed, receives rent assistance and cannot afford to run a car. The nearest bus stop is 400m from her house. Jayne started a hospitality course at the Reid CIT but withdrew because just getting there took over an hour and involved either three buses with a connection she inevitably just missed, or two buses and a 800m walk. Just getting the kids to doctor's appointments and the shopping done is hard enough.
  • Hoang from Palmerston works in the Parliamentary Triangle. Before pay-parking was introduced, his daily commute took 20-25 minutes each way if he left home before 7:20am or after 8:45am, and left work before 4:30pm or after 6:30pm. To save money, he now catches the bus to Flemington Rd, the tram to Civic and another bus to Parkes, which takes just over an hour in the morning and a bit more coming home, if he makes the connections. Occasionally, he has to work late but then has to be careful when he leaves to avoid a long journey home. Although Hoang saves money on fuel and parking, he now has 6 hours less time each week with his young family and can no longer help with shopping on the way home or collecting his kids from after-school activities.

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 sporting fields, shops and entertainment venues across the city. 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 pick-up up his dry-cleaning,
visit a drive-thru, see his friends

As Simon Corbell, former ACT Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, in his introduction to Transport for Canberra - Transport for a sustainable city, 2012–2031, noted that 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.

The likelihood of autonomous vehicles becoming a reality in the next 2-3 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 a probable $2B expenditure on a light rail line between Civic and Woden which will provide a slower service with fewer seats than the buses it would replace. Whilst traditional public transport cannot meet the needs of citizens even at such a cost, effective alternatives are not being debated. This simulation tests the feasibility of an alternative.

The future - a shared fleet of autonomous electric vehicles

Fleets of autonomous cars are being trialled in preparation for widespread deployment between 2023 and 2025 by Waymo, Cruise/GM, Intel/Mobileye, Argo/Ford, Zoox/Amazon, Oxbotica, Voyage, Aurora, Apple's Project Titan, Tesla, Baidu/Apollo, Volvo and many others.

Providing on-demand, 24x7, door-to-door convenience at much lower costs than either existing public or private transport, a shared fleet of autonomous cars is likely to finally offer everyone the cheap and universal mobility that Canberra seemed to be on the verge of achieving in 1990.

The need for some privately owned and operated cars will persist: utes for the tradies, specialist delivery and service vehicles. However, within the next few years, economics and convenience will drive the preferred choice for the vast majority of travellers on the vast majority of their journeys around the city to a shared fleet of autonomous electric vehicles.

As a society we can let purely commercial motives drive this transition to maximise private profits, or we can plan adoption of this new approach to transport to maximise benefits to the community, including support for those whose livelihoods are threatened by these changes.

Lower cost of travel

Being highly utilised (rather spending 95% of its time parked), not needing a driver and being electric are compelling cost advantages:

Public Transport 1 Private Car 2Shared fleet of autonomous vehicles 3
FareActual cost
Excluding parkingIncluding parking Fare and actual cost
Daily commute 24km round trip
parking in Parliamentary Triangle
$6.44$21.54 $17.00$33.00 $11.44
Daily commute 16km round trip
parking in Belconnen Town Centre
$6.44$21.54 $11.36$22.36 $7.92
Night out in Civic for 2 people travelling together, 24km round trip
night parking Canberra Centre
$10.20$43.08 $17.00$20.00 $7.26
Weekend family trip to the Belconnen Mall, 20km round trip, 2 adults, 2 children
free parking
$16.08$86.16 $14.20$14.20 $6.16

  1. Actual costs are based on Transport Canberra's 2018-19 expenditure and the assumption that on average 1.3 boardings on average being required to complete a one-way journey: 20.1 million boardings results in roughly 15.5 million journeys, each costing about $10.80 to provide, of which on average 70.1%, or about $7.60, is subsidised. The Actual Cost column includes the Transport Canberra subsidies averaged over all trips.
  2. Based on the list of top selling cars in Australia for 2019 and RACV's running costs per model (based on 15,000 km travelled per year averaged over first 5 years of ownership, but not including parking, garaging, cleaning), the cost of driving is $0.71/km.
  3. Based on default simulation parameters and including GST

Greater convenience

  • Like a private car, a shared fleet of autonomous cars provides on-demand, 24x7, door-to-to-door transport: 95% of journeys can start within 1 minute of being requested and 99% within 3 minutes.
  • Unlike a private car, you don't need to spend time finding a car-park or on refuelling, repairs, cleaning.
  • Unlike traditional public transport, you don't need to worry about timetables, route coverage or getting to and from stops.

Universal mobility

On-demand, door-to-door travel is available to all at any time of day. Sufficient vehicles in the fleet need to provide wheel-chair access to meet demand.

Reduced congestion

Traffic congestion is dramatically decreased, particularly during peak periods on major roads. For example, the modelled average occupancy of fleet cars arriving in Civic and Parkes is 2.4 passengers, compared to about 1.1 for current private car journeys to work (see Section 3.5.7 of the GDE Extension review and also the "travel to work" stats for car as driver and as passenger from the 2017 Travel Survey). Journeys to "smaller target" destinations, such as Belconnen and ANU, still have modelled average occupancies of 2.0 and higher.

Promotion of "active transport"

Active transport refers to physically active travel, such as walking and cycling which may be combined with traditional public transport, for example, by walking from home to a bus stop and from a bus stop to work or shops. The associated physical activity is likely to have health benefits, as well as reducing pollution, congestion, land required for car-parks, demand for new roads and public and private expenditure on transport.

The goals of active transport are very worthy. However, active transport should not be forced unilaterally on those depending on public transport. Many people have health problems and disabilities which restrict their capability to participate in active transport. While a 10km bike commute is fine for many, simply having to walk 100m on an uneven footpath can be a serious impediment to mobility for someone with poor vision, severe arthritis or hip and knee problems. A walk to the shops or doctors may be a pleasant experience on some days, but less so in 40 degree heat or driving winter rain, particularly for the elderly and infirm or a single parent wrangling the toddlers and the weekly shop. Similarly, a walk back from the bus stop may generally be delightful on a spring afternoon, or may be a harrowing experience for a nervous and vulnerable young person on a dark night.

Autonomous cars facilitate active transport by allowing the individual to add physical activity to their travel plans when and how it suits their circumstances. An aged pensioner may walk the 1.5km to the shops, but take a car home with their shopping. The visually impaired academic may walk 2km from home to a park each day and then be picked up by a car to travel to the door of their workplace to avoid negotiating crowded streets. The public servant may take a car from home to the lake and walk from there to their office (unless it is raining), and later jog home as far as they can before summoning a car.

Autonomous cars facilitate active transport by providing flexibility, opportunity and choice.

Lower infrastructure costs

The ACT road network is generally excellent and has more than sufficient capacity for peak hour transport journeys to popular destinations are shared. It does not need to be upgraded or, as in the case of light rail, duplicated.

Land devoted to open-air car-parks and building costs for provisioning public car-parks and private garaging can be greatly reduced. Land can be reallocated to parks or more economically valuable uses, the expense of car-parking in large buildings can be greatly reduced and garages in many private homes can be re-purposed. According to the ACT Government's Transport for Canberra - Transport for a sustainable city, 2012–2031 Table 5, the land value of an on-surface car-park is $92,829 in Civic and $17,707 in a town centre, with each car park costing $489 annually to maintain

Better environment, health and safety

The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development estimate the annual cost of road crashes as $1150 per person. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's Injury among young Australians report from 2008 identified transport accidents as the leading cause of death and injury of young Australians (aged 12-24 years) in 2005.

Additionally, the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics estimates that pollution from all motor vehicles (not just cars) causes 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.

Main results of the simulation

The default simulation models a single week-day of 1.1 million journeys undertaken by a shared fleet of 34,000 autonomous cars. About 2,800 people (full-time-equivalents) are employed to service the fleet.

The main results from the default simulation are:

  • About 95% of all journeys begin within 1 minute of a car being requested, and 99% begin within 3 minutes. Outside the morning peak between 7:30am and 9am, there are almost no waits longer than 2 minutes.

  • The average car travels about 370km/day of which over 290km is carrying passengers and the remainder is empty repositioning or travel to a charger.

  • Average car occupancy during the morning peak to popular commuting destinations is between 2.0 (ANU) and 2.4 (Parkes) people.

  • About 2.1GWh of electricity is consumed each week-day.

  • The unsubsidised fare for typical 10km trip is $4.84 during peak periods and $3.08 off-peak (both fares including GST).

  • The fleet generates a surplus of around $125 million per year after all capital, financing and operational costs.

Some observations on these results:

  1. An autonomous car fleet can replace current public transport and most private car transport at much less cost

    The default simulation of 1.1 million week-day journeys generates an annual surplus of approximately $125M. This surplus could be used to provide almost 100,000 free journeys per day, subsidise a larger number, provide funds for other community needs, or some combination of goals.

    Traffic congestion is dramatically decreased, particularly during peak periods on major roads.

  2. 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

  3. At lower journeys per day (lower uptake levels of the autonomous service), 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.

  4. 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.

  5. The more "peaky" the AM and PM peak-travel demand is, the less efficient the fleet is

    The fleet must be sized to provide acceptable response in the busiest period.

    The modelled demand (derived from the 2017 ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang Household Travel Survey) has a sharp peak on week-day mornings, and two smaller peaks each afternoon. The fleet size is largely determined by trip source and destination distribution ("tidal" commuter flows increase "dead running" as cars reposition to collect their next set of commuters) which is hard to change, and the intensity of the AM peak, which may be amenable to manipulation by pricing and other incentives.

    Less commuting in a post-COVID world may "flatten" this peak: one of the other pre-set models in the simulation demonstates this by generating a higher surplus and providing similar operational performance with 16% fewer cars.

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 a significant operating surplus at high usage levels, which allows for a significant community subsidy for transport for those in need, and leverages and better utilises 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.

Providing services for an autonomous fleet of 34,000 cars would be one of Canberra's largest employers, requiring about 2,800 full-time-equivalent positions.

Furthermore, 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, and after financing and operating expenses, is cash-flow positive from the first day of operation.

Next steps

A decision to transition from a well-understood technology to a better but less familiar replacement 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

    The number of participants developing autonomous cars and related system and their rate of progress is astonishing. We should build and maintain expertise in technical developments and gauge the interest of major developers of the technology in participating in a large-scale deployment of their products.

  2. Commercialisation of automated and rapid recharging technology

    A large fleet of autonomous vehicles would benefit from 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. The model used in this simulation requires significant labour (and hence incurs significant cost) to manually attach and detach charging cables to cars.

  3. Effect on the electricity grid and generation capacity

    The 2.1 GWh/day required to support 1.1M journeys is substantial. By way of comparison, the Point Henry aluminium smelter near Geelong used approximately 8.2 GWh/day prior to its closure in 2014, and the demand in the ACT in 2014 averaged around 7.7 GWh/day.

    EVs with very 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 and weight may not be worth the grid benefits such an arrangement may attract.

    Just as large aluminium smelters attracted dedicated generation infrastructure, a large, predictable load to power EVs may encourage further investment in very large scale renewable generation capacity and may be operated as a very large battery to help balance grid supply and demand.

  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 $0.40 per km, plus a flag-fall of $0.40, and an off-peak fare of around $0.30 per km, plus a flag-fall of $0.25 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.

    • The flag-fall component of the 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".

    COVID-19 has increased awareness of the risks of disease transmission on public transport. Although journeys are only shared during peak periods, cars are still "shared" between journeys, and spread of disease by surface contamination is a significant risk. Hence ways to minimise direct and indirect disease transmission will need to be devised.

  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 foreseeable future. Coexistence 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 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. For operational efficiency, these charging stations should be distributed across Canberra and 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 2019-20 Budget Outlook, motor vehicle registration and transfer duties were estimated as raising $193M, parking fees and fines $39M, traffic fines $33M and driving licenses $14M in 2020-21. This represents a total revenue "at risk" of just over $279M if all private and commercial 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 $140M would be more than compensated for by the direct reduction in Transport Canberra subsidy 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 Transport Canberra.
    • 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 a 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 around $1000 per household, diverting much-needed funds from education, health and other community priorities.

It is not just the economically disadvantaged, the young and the elderly who are dependent on public transport: everyone relies on someone who relies on public transport, and hence we all rely on public transport.

Canberra did have an effective public transport system in the 1980's which was systematically defunded and has now become the transport system for people with no other option. A light rail transport "backbone" 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 direction 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.

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 34,000 autonomous sedans can service 1.1 million "on-demand" door-to-door journeys per day, with 95% 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 supporting about 2800 full-time-equivalent jobs and generating an annual surplus of about $125 million, enough to provide free transport for almost 100,000 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 expenditure on an extension to the current single light rail route that will do nothing to address these problems (and indeed increase journey times for current bus users).

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 positively transformative technological and social shifts of the 21st century.

The 2014 version of this site is available here.

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