Steering cities into a driverless future

Published by Flemmich Webb on

By Garry Booth

News that aerospace company Airbus and Paris underground operator RATP are looking into the viability of adding flying vehicles to the city’s urban transport network is an indicator of how changing modes of personal mobility could impact city life.

Autonomous vehicles are already being seen on some city streets around the world, albeit in controlled trials.

But many cities risk being left behind in the race to accommodate autonomous vehicles unless they start preparing now, according to city infrastructure experts. Those that fail to plan for the inevitable growth in the number of AVs on city streets could end up paying a heavy cost in both environmental and economic terms.

“Cities that embrace the electric and autonomous vehicle future will be cleaner, quieter and more accessible. They will be places that offer fantastic quality of life, not a compromise that forces individuals to suffer pollution, risk of death and injury on the roads, and hours wasted in congestion, in return for the economic upside of city living,” says Richard Threlfall, Partner and Global Head of Infrastructure at KPMG International.

The move towards autonomous vehicles seems unstoppable.

In its 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, KPMG points out that the UK recently joined Canada, China, Finland, France, India, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in pledging that at least 30 per cent of new vehicles sold will be EVs by 2030.

Rarely a day passes without a new story headline highlighting the latest development in “driverless cars” on our streets.

Recently, for example, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that he expects to put self-driving “robotaxis” on US city streets by 2020. Mr Musk said the scheme would operate on a model similar to that of Uber or Airbnb, employing cars that drive themselves with a human on standby.

Similarly, in the UK, autonomous cars are being tested around the London boroughs of Bromley and Croydon in advance of the launch of an autonomous car sharing service in the capital. The UK AI firm FiveAI plans to begin passenger trials by 2020.

At the same time, many countries are introducing laws to accommodate AV trials and use by private motorists; California has even lifted the requirement that AVs must have a human driver to take over in emergencies.

Meanwhile, most major motor manufacturers are investing in autonomous driving technology with some makers already licensed to conduct “live” tests on the open road. Last year, Ford created a new AV division with plans to invest $4 billion by 2023.

But what is less prominent in the press are the preparations being made by cities to accommodate next generation automotive technology. They need to move up a gear as most cities lack the necessary infrastructure to cope with widespread use of AVs.

Driverless vehicles are likely to be electric, meaning that cities will require sufficient energy supply and charge points to power them. Equally, driverless cars are likely to require data connections for safety, operations and customer convenience. A communications backbone capable of providing the coverage, bandwidth, latency and reliability will be a crucial requirement for the “at-scale” adoption of driverless vehicles. Cyber security, including around personal data and physical systems, will clearly be another, related consideration.

“The power of big-tech and automotive firms means that the march of driverless cars is inevitable. What is not certain is the way that cities respond, but it’s vital they are proactive in preparing for disruption,” says Tim Strong, Senior Technical Director at Arcadis, a leading consultancy for natural and built assets.

“This means actively engaging with the technology disruptors and local citizens, forming policy and relationships, enabling pilots and test activities to engage their citizens and conducting modelling and analytics studies to inform their policies,” Mr Strong adds.

KPMG’s Richard Threlfall says that cities should be sorting out their governance so they can develop a holistic approach to transport and spatial planning across the city. “In many case this means addressing existing silos, particularly between public and road transport authorities. Having taken that step, cities should be developing their role as regulator, so they are clear about the public policy outcomes they are seeking and how they will encourage and enable those outcomes,” he says. “In doing that they should be engaging closely with private sector stakeholders who can bring both innovation and investment, and carry the risk of technological obsolescence.”

Cities that don’t take steps to prepare for a mass mobility revolution risk seeing gridlock in their cities worse than that experienced in even the most congested cities in the world today, Threlfall believes: “A study by KPMG in the US a few years ago, predicted that in a world of autonomous vehicles, vehicle miles travelled could increase by up to three times as the young, elderly, disabled and those in remote communities, who today find transport difficult to access, will simply call up an autonomous vehicle.”

Cities are at a cross roads, Tim Strong reckons: “Of course, we cannot be certain, but in a future possible world where some cities realise positive benefits from the at-scale adoption of driverless cars, it would be reasonable to expect that those that do not successfully make the transition become initially ‘less attractive’ – economically, socially and indeed environmentally – by comparison. How this will play out in practice or in the longer term when ‘paradigm shift’ reaches ‘steady state’ is extremely difficult to forecast.”