Bound to repeat the same mistakes – The Traffic Issue
Every day around 31 new cars are introduced to the Maltese roads. A quick look at the way the government is tackling this issue shows an evident lack of national strategy and vision.
We are still building our roads like we always did, with the sole intention of finding a place to fit the ever-increasing influx of cars on our finite number of roads, followed by ways to mitigate the traffic that ensues. It is clear that this way of doing things is unsustainable, especially in the long term.
Technology, albeit being feared by some, holds solutions to numerous aspects of our lives, including the issue of mobility. On this, the solution could be the concept of Shared Autonomous Transport.
An autonomous, or self-driving vehicle is a car that can be operated without the intervention of a driver by recognizing its surrounding environment, judging risks, and planning a route. Autonomous vehicles range from level 0 autonomy – the common everyday car with some warning or intervention systems, to Level 5 - a fully automated vehicle that never requires human intervention.
In the long run, driverless cars will help us reduce accidents, emissions, save time spent on commuting, and make more people mobile. They can make very fast and efficient decisions and have the potential to remove common human errors, which account for 90% of traffic incidents.
Should we implement such autonomous vehicles to provide for shared transport and to operate with electricity, we can provide solutions both in terms of traffic and to reduce emissions. Electrified, shared autonomous vehicles could offer transport between major points in Malta, with secondary modes of transports then providing more localised transport. The aim should be to accelerate the move away from using our private vehicles to seamless multi-modal transport by making use of sustainable, accessible, and smart transport.
The onboard technology of such cars is developing rapidly but we are entering a transition phase in which we need to think carefully about how these cars will interact with human drivers and the wider driving environment. During this period, the key question we should be asking is not when will self-driving cars be ready for the roads, but rather when will our roads be ready for self-driving cars.
You will find most people to be bemused at the idea of introducing self-driving vehicles to our roads. Their fears and scepticism, however, are completely justified given the number of infrastructural mishaps that we encounter on our roads daily. Right now, our roads are nowhere near ready to accommodate new automobile technology. This means that traffic signs and road markings need to be very clear, road drainage systems to work properly, and roadside digital communications to be very efficient.
But we cannot keep living in the now, simply managing by crisis. We need a government to look beyond our shores, identify the technology being used, and start to implement it before we are obliged to.
We have already made this mistake with electric vehicles, whereby in 2018 the European Commission decided to take Malta to the Court of Justice of the EU for failing to notify their national policy frameworks under Directive 2014/94/EU on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure. Despite more work being done this year on the move towards electric vehicles, we all know it is a little too late, with the number of charging pillars on our roads already insignificant to the pitiful number of electric cars.
The Labour Party, in its 2017 general election manifesto, did state that autonomous vehicles were the way forward and that it was of utmost importance that we do not get left behind in this leap towards a new era of transport. Their bombastic mission statement was to build ‘Roads for the Future’ that can support the use of emergent technology.
Earlier this year, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure, and Capital Projects, Ian Borg, unveiled an autonomous bus pilot project operating between four principal routes. We, however, have to date heard minimal updates on the project, and with the constant road infrastructure issues that arise, it is not hard to see why. While the autonomous bus pilot project is a step in the right direction, we need to first prepare our roads for this technology.
Widening our roads is not the long-term solution to the mobility issue that has been plaguing us for years. Before it is too late, the government needs to make the necessary road infrastructure available so that the inevitable change towards newer modes of transport can be as seamless as possible.
Rebekah Cilia is a Nationalist Party general election candidate on the 7th and 11th district *