Autonomous vehicles: Starting the dialogue

Are driverless vehicles just a replacement for the ordinary car, or an opportunity to redesign our cities on a more human scale?

Much of our urban infrastructure is designed to separate us from our cars. Image: By Ros K [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Much of our urban infrastructure is designed to separate us from our cars. Image: By Ros K [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Updated: 01 September 2016
  • Author: Pete Zanzottera, Freelance Transport Consultant

It would be hard to ignore the relentless progress that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are making. Just last week Nutonomy launched limited driverless taxi services on the streets of Singapore –paradoxically with a human driver ready to take over. Although the technology appears ready, the world isn’t quite ready for it.

AVs have largely captured the tech-loving, data-driven idea of the future and their progress is synonymous with those who see a future in offering all round mobility solutions: Google, Uber and some of the major car manufacturers.

However, occasionally there is a voice crying out in the tech driven world asking why?

Our cities are best when they are built on a human scale and in a hypermobile world it is still the places where we encounter each other and experience the world that are the most popular.

I often ask people what is the most popular form of transport, and the answer is still walking. Nowadays the most popular and best places to live are the cities where walking and cycling are on the rise.

Shared mobility

AVs do allow us some fantastic solutions to make more of our cities. First, in a world dominated by on-street parking, AVs would have the power to go and park themselves, out of the way, and not on the street where the space is exactly where we would like to expand walking and cycling provision.

Second, AVs offer us a fantastic array of shared mobility options. Why do you need to own a car when you can get one when you need it? It could be a car club, a taxi, and a chauffeur driven limousine, all in one. Added to that, it could be a van, an electric bike, or a whole range of options, that you don’t have to own every one of. Not only could on street parking disappear, but homes could be built without garages and we could densify even further.

Vision zero

Arguably the greatest prize that AVs offer us, is that of vision zero: the elimination of road fatalities, and eventually all casualties. It has long been known that human error is by far the biggest contributor to collisions and casualties – in short “the nut behind the wheel” is the faulty component.

Insurance companies, car manufacturers, and even some governments (like the EU) are moving towards solutions where there are interventions to reduce driver error. Some cars can now be bought with pedestrian and cyclist detection and warning systems, and for insurers, these and other technological solutions will reduce premiums. AVs can be speed compliant, sense other road users to avoid collisions, and are not subject to emotional outbursts or road rage.

If by removing individual driver error, we can really reduce crashes by 90% then we have the problem of who was liable for the 10% remaining. These 10% would also probably be subject to the same level of scrutiny reserved for air and rail crashes.

Urban spaces

One of the goals of effective speed management is the “self-indicating” road – a road which automatically indicates its speed limit to the vehicle through the design.

It is possible that AVs bring this so much closer, without some of the multi-million expense of engineering space so that humans perceive what an acceptable speed is. It will still need us to re-engineer space, but AVs might allow us to do without one of the most disruptive pieces of road engineering – the kerb.

One of the most expensive parts of reallocating road space, is the expense of digging up and realigning kerbs. But if vehicles knew where “to be or not to be” it might be possible to do this without kerbs; we might even manage to create a world where ‘pavement parking’ was eliminated by a simple piece of programming on a universally available map.

Perhaps the most frustrating things about AVs is that they are being airbrushed into the world as it is. It would be so much better if we began a dialogue to create spaces that AVs are welcome in, and perhaps enhance the safety benefit by excluding motor vehicles with drivers, or at least non-professional drivers, allowing access for public transport and service vehicles. This might well be one of the challenges that we pass to Transport Systems Catapult.

Although the technology component has taken the lead with AVs there is now an opportunity to create and render our visions of how new urban realm would look with AVs whilst preserving the human scale. Nearly all of the images I have seen of AVs have no people walking around them. I would love to see a new world that includes walking and human powered vehicles, one where our communities are rebuilt on knowing our neighbours and undoing the harm that individual motor vehicles have wreaked on our neighbourhoods.

What’s your view?

Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #driverlessrevolution.