Automating our cities – are we ready?

Automotive manufacturers such as Tesla, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are already introducing increasingly connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). From sensors and cameras to artificial intelligence and deep learning, CAVs could revolutionise the driving experience. Catapult Transport Systems in the UK fosters a wide range of CAV-related collaborative projects from parking and collision avoidance to user-centred projects and ageing populations. Many other organisations are working on similar projects around the globe too.

We’ve certainly come a long way in the history of vehicle automation which the UK road safety charity Brake dates back to the 1950s/60s when the UK Transport Research Laboratory used ‘self-driving’ cars on its test track. Or the Stanford Cart which was built in 1961, as mentioned on Wired, showing just how far we’ve come!

There’s no denying that these developments are exciting, especially from a technological standpoint. But as with every shift of this nature, we need to look at the bigger picture including societal changes and importantly the impact on sustainable urban mobility planning. The question is: are our cities ready for automation? And are we ready too?

Considering the impacts

This is a multifaceted issue – and one where we need to consider carefully the effects on urban environments and citizens. There are many implications that we simply can’t ignore, such as:

Planning and regulation

How will these vehicles interact with the built environment? Will the city infrastructure require automation such as road sensors to communicate with the vehicles? If so, what exactly is needed and how will it be funded? What regulations should be put in place? Many questions need answering to ensure the planned introduction of CAVs into cities – along with best practice to ensure they remain compliant. In addition, much thought needs to be given to public transport to avoid the cannibalisation of mass shared transport and to ensure that active travel isn’t discouraged in the process too.

Road safety

We have to remember that CAVs will need to “respond” in the moment to people, animals, inanimate objects, other autonomous transport and, of course, individuals driving vehicles. Can CAVs detect the magnitude of such varying situations? What happens if there’s a malfunction? Could the vehicle do something unexpected such as misinterpreting a road layout without markings? And not forgetting that we could be dealing with different degrees of automation (as outlined by the SAE) which also need to be taken into consideration. Coupled with all of this is liability – if there’s an accident who is to blame?

Congested cities

CAVs could make our city log jams even worse with more single or low occupancy journeys. Taking the car with you on a night out is more appealing when no one has to drive. It could also encourage more journeys overall – and longer journeys too – as people could turn their attention to other activities during travel. It’s also unclear what might happen in terms of parking; whether the car would go back to its home base, park up or drive around until the ‘passengers’ are ready to be picked up again.

And this barely touches the surface. There are many more impacts than we’ve highlighted here. The discussion paper, Road Vehicle Automation and Cities and Regions, by POLIS goes into further breadth and depth and is worth a read. It has taken the perspective of a fully-automated environment and highlights the fact that the impacts are less certain in an environment which includes automated, non-automated and partially automated vehicles.

The way forward

Understanding these impacts as well as the benefits is essential so that a balanced approach can be taken – one that works for society as a whole. That’s why governments and local authorities must play a central role in their introduction – something which Thomas Mourey, Project Manager & Coordinator Clean Vehicles, POLIS Network, highlights in his article on Urban Mobility Daily, ‘Automated Vehicles in Cities: Are Cities ‘Automation-ready’?’.

He also discusses a three-step process to help to ensure we’re ready for the change. These include automation awareness; planning for automation readiness; and the implementation of those measures (as outlined in the diagram below).

Source: courtesy of Urban Mobility Daily and Rupprecht Consult- Forschung & Beratung GmbH (editor), Road vehicle automation in sustainable urban mobility planning, 2019

This is all part of the European project CoEXist which focuses on preparing for a transition to AVs, a time in which both traditional and automated vehicles will be travelling our roads. Its “AV-ready” framework was created to help road authorities to understand the impacts of AVs and to navigate the changes. Projects such as this are therefore essential and provide much-needed guidance – particularly as cities will without a doubt be at different stages in the transition.

Proactive planning

Given that governments and local authorities need to play a central role in the sensible introduction of CAVs onto our roads, such frameworks will allow for proactive planning. This is too important to take a ‘wait and see’ approach even though there are clearly many unknowns. And whilst this can make it difficult to know fully what’s being planned for, it’s about understanding the current state of play in the CAV market, the likely direction and to start to prepare early for the road ahead.

This includes reviewing the potential cost impact, changes required to infrastructure, public policy, regulation and more. Even new revenue models for governments and authorities. CAVs will become part of our everyday life eventually and so it’s important to use this time to carefully consider the options – and how they will align with policy goals for the betterment of citizens, quality of life, and the environment.

A shared vision

There’s no doubt that governments and authorities can’t take this on alone. And neither should they attempt to do so. Whilst they may take the leading role, we all have a part to play including CAV manufacturers and providers, MaaS solutions experts and citizens themselves.

A study by KPMG measured the preparedness of 25 countries in its Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI) and found the Netherlands to come out on top, followed by Singapore, Norway and the United States. Such an index provides insight into where countries are really doing well and could be the basis of best practice. 

By taking a collaborative approach and coming together we stand to learn more from each other than we do alone. This can all be part of a measured approach to introducing CAVs into our urban environments, taking a global perspective, alongside the wider purpose of how we want to live, work and thrive in our modern urban environments – and to do so in a way that’s for the greater good and protection of us all.

Photo by Avinash Patel from Pexels