Written by Paul Shuker, Director of Planning, Development & Regeneration - North West
For more than 100 years, the world has been designed around the demands of a private car-driven society. A sea change is now upon is. Humanity is on the cusp of a renewed focus on designing for people. The emergence of autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change how we plan our towns, cities and even how we design our houses and buildings.
We need to start planning for autonomous vehicles today if we are to be ready to make the most of the benefits they will bring. Each day a new climate crisis is flagged across the planet; to meet our carbon emission targets by 2050 requires us to rip up the last 100 years of planning, highway and environment regulations to support the sustainable mobility revolution that will change our and future generations’ lives for the better.
Development of autonomous vehicles started in 2004 in the US when the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency investigated how to protect troops from bombs during military operations across the Middle East. The technology has continued to advance as renowned universities and tech companies from around the globe have taken the challenge forward.
Today the technology exists for autonomous vehicles, but regulations for driving them on roads do not. Currently, autonomous vehicles are only permitted to be on UK roads if a driver is present, ready to take over.
However, driverless vehicles might not be as far away as we think. In early 2019 the Government announced its intention to have driverless cars in use on the UK’s roads by 2021. In November 2019, Europe’s first self-driving bus was demonstrated in Glasgow in preparation of a trial over the Forth Road Bridge in 2020. Technology from Oxbotica is being trialled in five autonomous cars around London to collect data as part of a £13m research scheme called Driven, a partially government-funded consortium. The project’s aim is to combat challenges to driverless vehicles.
Across the world, car manufacturers – which have generally been slow to get involved – are now setting up consortiums with tech companies to explore autonomous vehicles. Dr Graeme Smith, Driven’s programme director, said cars are still five years away from being used as robotaxis and 10 years away from showrooms – but in the grand scheme of urban planning, that isn’t far away at all. We need to plan now otherwise we will be retrofitting our towns and cities, which is not only expensive but disruptive to all.
Benefits: Personal mobility
Picture a city with no private vehicles, instead replaced by streamlined transport routes for driverless vehicles that allow us to book our personal journeys via an app. The benefits are vast and wide reaching.
First, the urban environment will be vastly improved. If travel routes are reduced due to efficiency, our road infrastructure can be redeveloped and streamlined. Town planners will be able to create new green corridors and parks where roads once existed, as well as devoted cycle/e-scooter lanes and enhanced pedestrian routes. The benefits to mental and physical wellbeing are potentially huge.
We will redefine 20th/21st century access points into cities, designing them around people once again. Safety around schools, for example, will improve as autonomous cars will know obstacles and speed limits from 3D mapping. We will do away with road signs and traffic lights; the cars will know the rules, street clutter gone.
There will be no need for petrol stations, car dealerships or carparks, freeing up considerable space for urban planning. Away from town and city centres, housing design will change as garages become obsolete. ‘Drop off’ areas and lobbies will not be just for hotels but created and factored into all building design from factories to nurseries, as well as places to store and recharge autonomous vehicles when not in use. Will this be the end to public transport, especially local bus services in urban areas?
Secondly, we will have more money in our pockets. Private cars are unproductive entities, spending on average 95% of the time parked. It would be far more efficient to share vehicles between communities. People will move from private to personal mobility, booking their trip into the automated system which will reduce the number of cars per head considerably and the number of trips overall creating genuine sustainable travel patterns.
Thirdly, our reduced impact on the environment is clear. Greenhouse gas emissions from road transport comprises about a fifth of the UK’s total emissions. If we live in a world with auto-taxis, matching battery-powered vehicles with automation, this will shrink considerably.
The barriers to adoption
There are many barriers to overcome before widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles can occur, aside from the challenge of redesigning our town and city infrastructures.
The first is legislation. Who will take responsibility for the vehicles and any accidents that could happen? Creating new regulations will involve unpicking hundreds of years of insurance premiums and policies. A review announced as part of the Government’s ‘Future of mobility: urban strategy’ is exploring such fit for purpose legislation.
A second area that requires governance is safety. How can we ensure all autonomous vehicles sing to the same hymn sheet? Google has devised one system, Tesler has another; perhaps the Government will have to decide which offers the safest system and should therefore be adopted. Linked to this is security; if a system or the streets’ broadband is hacked, all autonomous vehicles could grind to a halt. The British Standards Institute has already created a cyber security standard for self-driving vehicles, but adoption will be critical.
A final barrier is people’s mindset. Some people like to have a specific car – how can that mentality be changed? And how can we get the car industry away from manufacturing millions of cars each year? They will need to lease autonomous cars to tech companies, perhaps, but this change will have a huge impact on their businesses. Leading car brands are now seriously getting involved, such as Fiat Chrysler’s link to Google Android and Samsung’s global connected car system, but there is a long way to go.
Overall, the developed world is certainly not ready for autonomous, let alone driverless, vehicles. Several high-profile incidents including fatalities have shown that we’re some way off mass adoption. However, the speed of their arrival will increase as pressure for adoption mounts. A report published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said the UK’s leading position in developing self-driving cars could produce a £62bn economic boost by 2030.
However, the real transformational economic impact will relate to how automated vehicles combine with the estimated population growth in developing countries. Affordable and accessible mobility will transform the quality of life for these communities and rebalance their economic potential considerably over the next 30 years and beyond. The future is closer than we think and it’s time to have those difficult and inconvenient conversations now.
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