Driverless cars are here – but the roads aren’t ready for them

A driverless car being piloted in San Francisco. Image: Getty.

The recent deaths of a woman struck by a car Uber was testing in driverless mode, and of a man whose Tesla Model X crashed when his hands were off the steering wheel because he was letting the car do some of the driving, may shift the debate over autonomous vehicles.

Those tragic fatalities are raising overdue questions about whether people and places will be ready when this new technology moves from beta-testing to a full-throttled rollout.

As an urban planner who has analysed how technology affects cities, I believe that driverless vehicles will change everything that moves and the stationary landscape too. Until now, the public and governments at all levels have paid too little attention to how letting these machines drive themselves will transform urban, rural and suburban communities.

The Tesla Model S electric car that crashed into a fire engine in Culver City, California, in January 2018. Image: KCBS-TV via AP.

Critical juncture

Driverless vehicles are closer than you may realise to moving out of testing mode. General Motors, for instance, plans to start producing ride sharing models as soon as 2019.

But public awareness and consumer acceptance will take far longer, perhaps decades. It will depend on the machines’ safety record, plus the time it takes to implement legal and political changes like enacting local laws governing the use of self-driving cars.

This shift requires everyone from automakers to consumers, insurers to planners and officials at all levels of government, to work together. Being proactive about guiding this technological change is essential. Rather than waiting until it happens or leaving it for the last minute, now is the time for education, thoughtful discussion and planning.

This juncture resembles what happened when automobiles replaced horses and the internet gained traction. In those cases, the technology changed how people lived, worked and got around. And the transformation occurred before the public or governments were ready.

When the internet first became popular in the 1990s, few people – if anyone – predicted the social and behavioral changes in store.

Likewise, the advent of motorised transportation more than a century ago completely changed cities, towns and suburbs. Replacing horses with the internal combustion engine demanded wider, better roadways and the invention and proliferation of traffic lights, gas stations, automotive dealerships, public parking lots and private garages. Governments had to regulate who could drive and which vehicles were roadworthy.

Driverless transportation, likewise, will demand new infrastructure and laws as it changes commuting and travel patterns in ways that few communities are contemplating today. Depending on what happens, the results could be positive or negative.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan delved into the angst and anger Americans felt toward early automotives in the documentary ‘Horatio’s Drive.’

Picture this

Ideally, self-driving vehicles will make it easier for people who can’t drive for any reason. These vehicles also promise more relaxed and productive commuting and excursions for everyone else.

Additionally, they could make the roads safer. Almost 6,000 American pedestrians and more than 37,000 drivers and passengers die in car crashes every year. Despite the two recent fatalities tied to autonomous driving, it’s likely that this number would be lower without people in the driver’s seat.

If these contraptions stoke ride-sharing growth, traffic may subside and pollution may decline. The amount of space occupied by roads and parking could shrink.

More homes and businesses will make do with smaller garages or none at all. Entrance ramps and other prime real estate hogs will be repurposed. Pollution will probably decline if in all likelihood most autonomous electric vehicles run on electricity, rather than gasoline or diesel and they draw a rising share of power from wind and solar energy.

Just think about what your community might be like. Picture wider sidewalks, new cycling and jogging lanes, and additional green space. It’s no wonder that urban planners are already pondering the possibilities.


Unanticipated consequences

Yet this technology might have serious downsides.

What if autonomous vehicles were to drive about empty, rather than parking? That would increase congestion rather than abate it. Public transit use could decline once commuters have the freedom to do whatever they wish aboard their vehicles. If they become more tolerant of longer trips to work, driverless cars could potentially increase sprawl.

The truth is, no one knows what to expect. While engineers have been developing the technology for decades, social scientists, politicians and government officials have only recently started to grapple with its repercussions. And public opinion and engagement is further behind.

The ConversationLeaving everything up to market forces and consumer whims could possibly create more problems than autonomous vehicles would solve. That’s why I believe in taking the planning side of the transition to driverless vehicles off autopilot.

Mark Wilson, Professor and Program Director, Urban & Regional Planning, School of Planning, Design and Construction, Michigan State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.