Autonomous vehicles and drones represent a definite part of the future of London – a case of “when”, rather than “if.” But their impacts – socially, politically, environmentally and economically – as well as the regulatory requirements they need, remain under the radar with local authorities and central government.
Those were some of the key sentiments to emerge from ‘Transport and the rise of automation’ – a wide-ranging discussion in the form of a think tank with leading practitioners in this field hosted by Tyréns at the White Collar Factory.
Think tank chair Peter Murray began by reflecting that there was disappointingly little in this area to be found in the Mayor’s recent transport strategy, despite it purporting to cover the period up to 2038.
Nevertheless, said head of foresight at Transport for London Iain Macbeth, there have been major strides forward, with TfL’s innovation directorate now 40 strong and looking at autonomous vehicles, dockless bikes – essentially anything that is ‘disruptive’. Trials are ongoing in places like Oxford on autonomous vehicles, with a goal to have public trials in London next year. Another trial is with company StreetWise, which has grown exponentially and is investigating the area of autonomous taxi services starting in south London next autumn. This firm has weight, said Macbeth; It is run by Stan Boland, who has a history of startups and scaling up, and is blessed with political friends. His brother is also chief executive of Addison Leigh.
Drones, though, are another important area, with the technology ‘proliferating everywhere’ and used more and more for asset management and servicing, such as with tunnel inspections on Crossrail and on tall buildings where they bring ‘huge safety savings and replicability’. Drone use, however, exists in a grey area in planning terms. They exist in three broad categories – hobbyist drones, commercial, and then the certified category for passenger carrying. But flying taxis are a question not of ‘if’ but ‘when’, with so much money currently being put into development from parties like Uber and Google, as well as traditional aviation firms. ‘They’re all coming to London to say we’d like to fly our taxis here’, said Macbeth. But just one catch-all phrase exists in the mayor’s transport strategy to cover all of this. And what might service drones mean for buildings if they deliver to the top, rather than the base? What might that do for the penthouse flat?
To get answers to some of this, TfL is talking to other cities, partially through a project started with NESTA, and in a bid to build a beneficial use case to counter what sometimes can be a negative view on drones with their military overtones or history of being used to, say, drop contraband into prisons. Part of this will be to look to identify them with medical deliveries, and Macbeth said in peak periods they can help save 90% journey time, flying one to St Thomas’ hospital, for instance. The potential is huge. ‘We’re really just scratching the surface’.
The first wave of autonomous vehicles, said Macbeth, will likely be on the motorways since they are easier environments to work with and some of the safest roads in the UK. They haven’t got the ‘challenges’ of cyclists and pedestrians; the ‘really difficult part.’ And indeed, the issue is more about how such things play out in terms of their impact on the economy and broader political matters than the technicalities. Macbeth is optimistic about the new deputy mayor for transport Heidi Alexander who ‘wants to talk about new things’, although government’s support is not enough, especially compared to the sums being raised in venture capital for electric scooters. Happily, the guiding principle is still ‘healthy streets’ where the street is a place rather than just a facility for movement. ‘London is a complicated space and difficult to crack’, said Macbeth. ‘But if you crack it here it will work anywhere.’
A culture of sharing should be encouraged, suggested Gavin Miller, director of MICA, but nobody has worked out how to deal with such technologies in planning terms, felt Jason Horner, head of infrastructure services at Hilson Moran. Autonomous vehicles provide one of the tools for people to live locally, said Vectos founding director Mike Axon, but often in proposing such in talking to local authorities, it is met with something of a negative reaction. What if it never happens?
Deliveries represent one of the biggest problems Lendlease faces in developing regeneration projects, said its head of place and infrastructure services, Clare Hebbes. Some way of automating that, or at least managing the last mile, would make a massive difference to the quality of streets, she said, and drones might be part of the answer. After all, one of the developer’s residential buildings currently gets some 1500 deliveries a week to its concierge. London’s airspace is one of the most controlled in Europe, so we need to think about a traffic management system for the skies, while next-gen road user charging should be part of the solution on the ground, said Macbeth.
But to have a car revolution you need a cycle revolution beforehand, believes Riccardo Bobisse, an associate in urban design at Steer Davies Gleave. To make pedestrians and cyclists less disruptive requires making it more attractive for them, with better infrastructure. Farrells associate Katerina Karaga questioned whether we will need quite so many car parking spaces and car parks in the future city, or the demand for AVs will shift on pick-up and drop-off spaces. Public transport will remain the backbone for cities but the last mile of transport will be through autonomous vehicles, so stations will be some of the first places to be affected, she added. The last mile of transport will be through autonomous vehicles, so stations will be some of the first places to be affected, she added. But is there enough data around to drive policy, asked Tyrens’ Roy Kong. Perhaps airports are also places to be looked at for a guide on the future, almost overnight they have had to manage a sizable demand from Uber type services, said WSP Future Mobility expert Toby Thornton, large areas of car parks both on and off-site are used to manage on-demand taxis. Shopping mall developers, too, are sensitive to the future impact on parking revenues and how parking assets will need to adapt to accommodate the multitude of electric, shared or potentially automated parking demand.
In the old days you would forecast demand on mathematical models, said Axon, but now transport assessments start very differently. ‘It has to be reverse engineered now’, he said. For Harbinder Birdi, partner at HawkinsBrown, the young want to cycle in because it is free, while Amazon and others are investing lots of money to promoting ‘metal’ on the street to either drop you off or deliver goods. Birdi’s practice has even hired an extra receptionist purely to handle the ‘cardboard boxes’ that come in for staff. ‘It’s phenomenal.’ But the bigger picture is Birdi’s concern about human beings and their ability to walk, he said, with technology threatening to make us less healthy. The control aspect will also be important, with who controls the network of cabs in the city, for instance, being a moot point. Traffic may well increase because of people’s increased access to cars, said Bobisse. And how will councils make up for the shortfall in revenue loss that is represented by less parking? Software apps have already sprung up to allow people to lease their own spaces. But there is still an awful lot of infrastructure like garages and showrooms that could be reworked as delivery of consolidation centres to spread the load, said Bobisse. Rather than wait, though, London should be proactive and experiment by adopting an approach to some of this technology and try it on one street, suggested Miller.
The social care budget in every city, may be an obstacle to investing in tech, said Birdi, but, a new government might possibly address this as well as the creation of infrastructure.
The first driverless trial on 200 miles of countryside roads and high speed roundabouts will be conducted in the UK at the end of next year, but that pales against the US, said Karaga, where they have already done 3.5 million miles of tests on public roads. It is important to do such trials because different countries have different road systems; Australia has issues with kangaroos interfering with autonomous vehicles, while other countries have issues with snow, for instance. And those millions of miles are long, straight roads, said Hebbes, which the UK has very few of. But do we need them at all in such a connected city, asked Birdi. Does it also disengage us from the public realm and make us more unsafe with less public surveillance?
Ultimately, suggested NLA chairman Peter Murray, there needs to be a more rounded mechanism for discussing these and many more issues as they relate to wider policy, and perhaps especially in the realm of healthy streets – along with more courageous politicians to push road use pricing.
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly