Autonomous vehicles and the future of transport

Driverless cars will change the whole future of mass transit. Rachel Skinner and Steve Fox look at the questions civil engineers need to ask about autonomous vehicles.

Can autonomous vehicles meet our ever increasing demands for mobility?
Can autonomous vehicles meet our ever increasing demands for mobility?
  • Updated: 16 August 2016
  • Author: Rachel Skinner, Director Development, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff and Steve Fox CBE, Chief Executive, BAM Nuttall

In 1888 Bertha Benz undertook the world’s first long distance road trip, driving a Benz motor car from Mannheim to Pforzheim in Germany. Over 100 years later, millions of people use their cars every day.

However, change is on the horizon.

It is inevitable that in the coming decades more and more people will choose to use autonomous vehicles for trips of all types. Why?

It is quite simple. Autonomous vehicles will offer a fundamentally better way of meeting our demand for mobility. Why own a depreciating asset when you could use – whether on demand or privately owned - a mode of transport in which you could work, read and even have a drink!

Changing spaces

Autonomous vehicles will change the way our towns and cities look, how and where we live and the future shape of mass transit. Done right, they can integrate with mass transit to provide a highly efficient and seamless multi-modal transport system for road and rail.

With thoughtful public sector leadership, we can use the opportunity of connected and autonomous vehicles to transform our places and streets, while generating enormous safety and efficiency benefits. With developer and investor input, we can seek to create new communities that are designed with people at the top of the transport hierarchy rather than cars. There is every chance that we’ll need fewer miles of tarmac as an autonomous fleet will utilise road space much more efficiently.

The transition has already begun. Mainstream cars are being sold with ever-more driverless kit on board as standard: lane-following and lane-changing, automatic braking and parking, and of course the long-standing cruise control ‘feet off’ that has been available for decades. The decisions we make about the way that our routes and places could function at a local level will determine the end result around the world.

Making it happen

In May, the Queen made a very visible statement about our national commitment to position ourselves at the forefront of connected and autonomous vehicle technologies. That the technology will work is no longer in question; it is all about professionals - including all of us - understanding the breadth of potential benefits and working across the public and private sector to achieve a shared vision.

And we need to start now.

There are big engineering issues, which will be entwined with political and legal decision-making. For instance the extent to which we need to integrate fully autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles on different types of routes and interchanges, and in distinct types of places. More fundamentally we must embrace the idea that the transport industry will increasingly be providing a service – that is, mobility – and not just a set of built assets.

Engineers can play a key role in driving this transition – but we need to be proactive, visible and highly collaborative.

Some questions we’d like to tackle are:

  • Who can make this all happen?
  • What are the key blockers and enablers?
  • What kind of infrastructure investment and ownership models will we need?
  • How will we re-configure networks and the towns and cities that they serve?
  • How do we build public trust?

There is no time to dawdle. Those economies and industries that act quickest will reap the greatest rewards. We also need to be bold. We look back at our Victorian forebears with pride, but the infrastructure that they have bequeathed us can be an anchor.

Let’s get beyond the current discussion about incrementally smarter roads and start thinking about how we provide adaptable, flexible and dynamic infrastructure that best suits autonomous vehicles as a fast-emerging new mode of transport.

About the authors

Steve Fox is Chief Executive of BAM Nuttall and is passionate about pushing the transformational change agenda for infrastructure.

Rachel Skinner is Director, Development for WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff and has, jointly with well-respected architectural practice Farrells, recently published “Making Better Places: autonomous vehicles and opportunities” that contains a series of detailed visions for different places and routes.