Managing road congestion in age of autonomous cars, ride-hailing

AMERICAN ride-hailing firm Uber's exit from Singapore following its merger with Grab in Southeast Asia may have caused much consternation among commuters as well as the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore.

Passengers are feeling the pinch of higher fares for their rides while the anti-competition watchdog, sufficiently alarmed by Grab's dominant position, recently fined Uber and Grab as well as imposed conditions on Grab to mitigate the impact on riders and drivers.

But Uber's exit isn't entirely bad news for everyone. Other road users such as motorists and bus commuters have reasons to cheer.

Anecdotally, there is now less congestion on the roads than before when the two ride-hailing firms were slugging it out for market share. In 2014, the year after Uber and Grab entered Singapore, chauffeur-driven, private-hire vehicles (PHVs) numbered 1,609. As at the end of 2017, the number soared to 46,903. Although PHVs remain a small fraction of the total car population of 612,256, they have an outsized presence on the road due to their higher usage. New York's city council recently voted for a one-year moratorium on new licences for ride-hailing services to combat the explosive growth of traffic in the city. Other major US cities as well as London are considering similar moves.

In Singapore, the pressure of traffic build-up has eased somewhat after Uber pulled out as some of their drivers stopped driving altogether, although many crossed over to Grab or joined the taxi companies. When Uber left the scene, its vehicle leasing operator Lion City Rentals had an estimated 15,000 cars that were unhired. Some have since been sold but up to 10,000 cars remain laid up. There is no question that PHVs - and, for that matter, taxis - are an integral part of public transport. Their convenience and easy availability are necessary to convince more people to give up owning a car.

But PHVs should supplement rather than substitute for buses and trains as a mode of travel. And fares should not be so affordable as to cause a significant number of bus or train commuters to switch to PHVs. That's because PHVs are no better than private cars as a mode of transport from an environmental and traffic management perspective. They occupy the same amount of space on the road and a PHV, arguably, spews greater emission than a private car since the latter is parked upon reaching its destination whereas the PHV will remain on the road either to wait for its next fare or to return to base.

An ability to stay on the road for a considerable period is also why the development of autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles bears watching.

Making the family car work harder - especially in Singapore where it is expensive not just to own a car but also to park it in public carparks - is why an autonomous car is such an irresistible prospect to some car owners. An enthusiastic car owner told The Business Times that if he had a self-driving car, it would be akin to having a personal, "cost-free" chauffeur. "I would use it to fetch me to work, my children to school and my wife to run errands," he said.

If his view becomes prevalent and autonomous cars are made to run like workhorses, the concept of managing Singapore's vehicle population - from the computation of certificate of entitlements quota to electronic road pricing - will need a reset. At the very least, distance-based charges will have to be introduced.