Driverless in Eurasia

How Autonomous Vehicles Could Reshape the Region

In 2007, two British motorists in a specially equipped Aston Martin undertook a record-breaking, 10,000-mile long journey from Tokyo to London (a distance roughly equal to driving from Anchorage, Alaska to Mexico City and back). Over the course of several weeks, they passed through Japan, South Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France, where they “Chunnelled” their way to the United Kingdom. Several years after the closure of this ambitious undertaking, it’s intriguing to ponder whether an autonomous vehicle, if programmed and “trained” appropriately, could successfully complete this same journey. Thanks to dramatic advances in artificial intelligence, the vehicle’s software would likely be able to handle the driving. However, I suspect the vehicle would be brought to a standstill by a decades-old problem that thwarts even the best human drivers: negotiating the border checkpoints to cross from one Eurasian country to the next.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to re-shape the continent of Asia’s economic geography, but they face infrastructure challenges unique to the region. First, let’s briefly consider their potential benefits. Autonomous vehicles could reduce the annual global death toll from car accidents, a tragically high figure of an estimated 1.25 million lives each year. Cities would be safer and cleaner. Projects are already afoot in Korea, China, Singapore and Japan to build driverless cars and taxis that can use data and algorithms to efficiently guide themselves through troublesome (and polluting) traffic bottlenecks.

Given how rapidly the technology is maturing, autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform long-distance road transportation. On rural stretches of roadway, autonomous freight trucks could drive in tightly spaced platoons, reducing their wind resistance and therefore, their fuel consumption. Since no human driver will be needed, merchants could adapt the size and shape of their autonomous delivery vehicles to the loads they need to ship, thereby saving on fuel costs. For example, a company that sells long, steel beams would ship its wares on a heavy-duty autonomous truck, while an organic farmer would send her fresh foodstuffs to nearby markets using a platoon of small, lightweight refrigerated vehicles.

Finally, while we’re still exploring the bright side, compared to other forms of land transportation, autonomous vehicles require less upfront investment in infrastructure. Building a mile of highway costs significantly less than building a mile of rail; specialized rail systems such as high-speed rail are even more expensive. Autonomous vehicles are not impacted by variances in national standards, such as differences in the width of railroad tracks. Finally, autonomous vehicles are essentially mobile robots with machine vision so (if specially equipped) they can drive over rough terrain; on highways they require very little supporting infrastructure technology to find their way (except, perhaps, the presence of crisp, painted-on lane markers so they can “see” the edges of the road).

Although Eurasian cities and nations could reap tremendous benefits from autonomous vehicles, one critical barrier remains: road border checkpoints. Should an autonomous passenger bus or freight truck attempt to conduct business across national borders, it would be quickly brought to a halt by the invisible walls that encircle each individual Asian and Middle-Eastern nation. Until the region’s international highway system is equipped with an infrastructure that provides rapid, yet secure border crossings, individual nations will not reap the full economic benefits of autonomous vehicles.

Many Eurasian countries boast modern economies that are built on a global tourism and a foundation of vast, elaborate global supply chains that casually sprawl across the borders of several different nations. Yet, their international roadways are parsed by strong national boundaries. An analysis of the wait times experienced by freight trucks at the borders of eight Eurasian countries showed that time spent waiting in queues for border control and inspections accounted for 30 percent of total trip time (Economic Cooperation Organization and International Road Transport Union, Final Report of the Silk Road Demonstration Caravan 2010 ). For reasons both economic and political, the vast stretches of roads and highways that criss-cross the continent of Asia remain parochial, subject to the rules and cultural climates of the individual nations through which they run.

Roads were not always so difficult to traverse. In ancient times, Asian and Middle-Eastern traders used overland routes – the famed “Silk Roads” – to transport their wares to distant markets. However, in the 20th century, as maritime navigation improved and the airline industry matured, the vast majority of Eurasian merchants began to utilize ships and airplanes to transport goods. At the time, not only were most of the continent’s highways in poor condition, these other modes of international transportation were already adequately set up to meet the demands of a global marketplace, enjoying robust international standards bodies, and the protection of trade agreements and well-defined intergovernmental organizations. As a result, today the vast majority of Asian-made goods and products destined for international markets are shipped by boat or plane: once the shipped containers reach the destination port, freight trucks are used to carry the cargo to its nearby destination.

Meanwhile, in North America and Europe after the end of World War II, governments made major investments in highway infrastructure, including the so-called “soft infrastructure,” the trade agreements and legal frameworks to enable the rapid flow of people and goods across state and national borders. More critically, these legal frameworks were put into effect. In contrast, although the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) database contains more than 400 bilateral inter-state road transport agreements between nations on the Asian continent, for many reasons, most of them have not been implemented. Efforts are underway to change this situation. Recently, China has proposed to lead a “One Belt, One Road,” (OBOR) initiative, a rapidly-expanding multi-trillion dollar economic and diplomatic program to finance and build up the road and sea transportation infrastructure in several different nations. However, standardizing the road transportation infrastructure across the economically and culturally diverse nations that comprise Eurasia will be a formidable undertaking that will take years to gain real traction.

Autonomous vehicles will have an immediate and positive impact on the quality of life in Eurasian cities, and will help businesses create new business models. Yet to fully realize the benefits that the application of autonomous vehicles could lend to international commerce, Eurasian nations will need robust checkpoint customs departments and road-specific international trade agreements. Since terrorism plagues many of the nations in the region, another critical piece of soft infrastructure will be the development of a standardized automated infrastructure that can track potentially dangerous vehicles. Perhaps the emergence of autonomous vehicles will motivate the individual governments of Asian and Middle-Eastern nations to invest in their region’s border infrastructure so pan-Asian highways will someday be as easy and safe to traverse as the highways that stretch across Europe or North America.

Melba Kurman writes about emerging technology. She recently co-authored Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead.

This essay is part of our Big Questions series.