Autonomous vehicles and their impact think tank

Tuesday 7 November 2017


The advent of connected and autonomous vehicles on London’s streets may still be decades away owing to legal as well as technological issues, but the issue needs policy, regulation and operational considerations if the benefits of the technology can lead to better, healthier, and more attractive streets.

That was one of the key take-aways from a wide-ranging think tank on the impact electronic, self-driving cars are likely to make, held at the offices of Grimshaw.

The session, under Chatham House rules, meant it was also anonymous as well as autonomous, but it included leading thinkers on the subject from architects to engineers, educationalists and Transport for London.

Consumer trends in this area are often overlooked, but it is worth considering the growth in population to 10 million by 2030, the general trend to urbanisation and the effects on already restricted road space. High density development puts great pressure on this space, and changes in consumer choice as well as expectations over how quickly people’s goods can arrive are adding to this picture. So too is the shrinking of residential units – meaning less storage space and consequently more ‘enforced’ shopping and healthy living driving transportation demands. Perhaps roadspace is currently undervalued – so the solution may be to think about how vehicles might be charged – or prioritised in future. With autonomous vehicles one expectation is for a blurring of boundaries – between autonomous taxis, shared vehicles and public transport, for example, but it also represents the opportunity to fundamentally change ownership patterns and the way traffic is managed. It is not only ground-based vehicles which are being considered in connected and autonomous vehicles, however, with trials being done on drones, which are already being used for asset management and being trialled by the Met Police for surveillance. It will be only a matter of time before drones will be used for commercial purposes, with implications for building design.

Perhaps, though, there is a tension between what the car manufacturers want us to think the future of AV is all about and perhaps the roads authorities and operators. A more likely future is around more car-sharing and pooling, said one contributor, than buying a better AV than the one next door. The Government is putting money into CAV research in trials in Milton Keynes, Bristol and Greenwich, including identifying the public’s reactions and barriers facing their introduction. But the key is to look at long-term flexibility in planning, especially when major developments may be around for 100 years. Getting to the point where an autonomous vehicle can take people from somewhere to anywhere in any level of traffic is, however, some way off yet.

In a sense, said another contributor, the debate throws transport up in the air and ‘resets’ it, changing everything. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to get better cities by managing passenger vehicle movement in a better way but a pessimistic view is that not effectively control and manage car movement effectively. ‘It’s a very pivotal time’. AVs deliver safety, congestion and air quality benefits but there is a huge investment required. Pollution will be reduced, but we need it to be a lot less. Then we come back to the operational and regulation considerations, which needs to be developed in parallel with CAV research and anticipating the impact of CAV. How do you ticket an autonomous vehicle? If they are so safe, why should they adhere to the speed limit? ‘It really is a can of worms’, said the contributor, albeit an interesting one.

Car sharing runs counter to what car manufacturers wanted a few years ago but many are now considering and investing in mobility as a service and anticipating degrees of car sharing. However, a more social problem is that, having developed a street crossing system over decades which establishes eye-to-eye contact to achieve safety, that is again in flux with autonomous vehicles. Many fear there will be in fact more vehicles on the road – or worse still on the pavement. ‘It will need some form of regulation’, said a contributor, with speed limits being some of those potential rulings.

It is an international discussion with the goal being sharing understanding. But whilst the EU may be leading, the UK and Ireland are way behind on contributions towards standards and operational considerations and how the EU can help harmonise standards internationally. Although autonomous vehicles could theoretically be ready by 2020, we’ll have to wait until 2030 or 2040 before they can work legally and safely, especially considering these technical and operational issues (including insurance issues and cyber-security). But on shared vehicles, reports that by 2030-5, 95% of all passenger miles in first world countries will be through transport as a service or mobility as a service, and that car ownership will drop dramatically to less than 40% are perhaps wide of the mark. The research suggests this will start in cities like London, and by 2040-50 vehicle ownership could drop to 20%, but are based on economics alone and assume huge investment by firms like Uber.  As to batteries, is there sufficient capacity in mining and refining Lithium to supply the anticipated growth in EV?.  EV is likely to go hand in hand with CAV operations.

Once battery charging technology has improved and charging times reduced without the heat build-up, there will likely be fast-charging stations springing up everywhere. But another study shows that since EV vehicles are 25-30% heavier, particulates from tyre tread might in fact be more damaging than some of the tailpipe emissions seen at the moment from conventional vehicles.

So, what of placemaking and the public realm?

It depends on the context, said one contributor – since London is a very different landscape than rural areas. But we should be wary of the principle found in one recent survey, that Uber’s arrival has in fact increased car use in the areas surveyed. At least the public perception of autonomous vehicles is a positive one, with people perceiving possibilities of greater accessibility, and even increased public space since road space would be diminished. We need to design for various different stages of the trajectory, perhaps requiring something more ‘iterative’ than planning has offered in the past.

Already in the ‘psyche’ is that there are places that we know we cannot drive to, but the ‘nightmare scenario’ would be that everyone gets picked up and delivered in their own ‘bubbles’, thus ‘dehumanizing’ the streets. And yet, in some societies, car-sharing systems already in existence have proved real social spaces that offer the kind of chance meetings missing from many of our cities. Many of the streets we have already are anyway far from perfect – perhaps they can be improved through more autonomous vehicles. Certainly, the building of cycle lanes and so on is ‘emotionally fraught’, but there is potential to free up spaces that are currently ‘uninhabitable’ by reducing noise and pollution.

The whole AV debate shines a light on government policy, which is missing, said one contributor, when it comes to transport, planning at a national level, or energy, all of which come together on AV. We have been sold that AV is the big solution.

But is this automated vehicle revolution simply ‘this year’s diesel’, with a lot of ‘greenwash’? Might reducing the cost of driving by 70% simply increase numbers driving by the same proportion, as in the Lisbon model? The technology will be there, but will it be enabled, given the investment needed to upgrade our infrastructure, including the communications network and highways. In order to get quality, healthy streets, there could be a place for road user charging. And there is sanction for TfL to begin this line of thought in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy.

Ultimately though, chair Peter Murray reminded the group, the words of eminent city planner Jaime Lerner should be remembered in this debate as a potential for all cities. ‘Cars are the cigarettes of tomorrow’, he said. ‘There was a time when we thought that we couldn’t do without them’.

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