Driverless cars to be tested in four British cities from this January

These Lutz pods will be tested in Milton Keynes. Image: Lutz.

Everyone’s excited about self-driving cars. After all, they’re cars that can figure out where they are and which way to go, without hitting anything! (Actually, they still haven’t figured out how to stop them hitting small animals. But still.)

The real test of the cars’ feasibility, though, is how happy people are to have them driving around on their streets. Driverless cars have been tested on public roads in Japan, Singapore, Germany and, of course, California, but they’ve yet to appear on British roads. And British residents don’t seem terribly keen on the idea: a survey of UK Automobile Association members, conducted in June, showed that 39 per cent of the 23,000 respondents didn’t want driverless cars on the roads at all.  

Despite this, the government has just announced the first four UK cities which will host driverless car testing from early next year. Bristol and Greenwich, a London borough, will host their own projects, while Milton Keynes and Coventry will share a third. All four bid for the honour as part of a competition opened up to all UK cities back in July; the finalists were chosen based on the viability of the test location and investment from local businesses. Testing will begin on 1 January and will last for anywhere between 18 and 36 months. 

The governent also announced a further £9m worth of funding for the tests, on top of the £10m promised in July. More funding will come from the private sector. 

The announcement has presumably come as a relief to UK-based producers of driverless cars, especially as the Department of Transport originally promised public UK road testing by 2013. When the test was first announced, Professor Ingmar Posner, co-leader of the robotics department of the University of Oxford, said: 

This will be really helpful as we look at how autonomous vehicles could help to ease traffic congestion and deliver a safer and more pleasant driving experience. It’s a real opportunity for UK cities to show how autonomous vehicles could be right at the heart of the urban transport systems of the future.

There are still a few hurdles to jump before autonomous cars can take to streets all over the country, however. While three of the four lucky cities will host pod and driverless car testing, Bristol will host something called the "Venturer Consortium". This excitingly named exercise will investigate the cars' potential effects on congestion, insurance and road laws. 

In the UK, changes to road law in particular will be more complicated than in other parts of Europe or the US.  That’s because, in the UK, vehicles aren't insured: drivers are. (After all, it's them who are prosecuted for breaking road law, and have to pay when they crash into things.)

So who is the responsible party when no one’s driving? Is it the car's owner? Or is it the company that created the car’s technology?

James Backhouse, director at Backhouse Jones, a practice specialising in transport law, said it's still not clear what the ramifactions would be:

There would be substantial changes, I would guess, to road traffic legislation and the highway code, because pretty much all transport legislation in the UK focuses on the driver. If you can’t enforce against the driver, I suspect they’ll enforce against the owner or keeper of the vehicle.

Until we’ve got the legislation to prosecute robots, that will have to do.



Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.