Here’s why cities need to plan for the arrival of driverless cars

Inevitable stock pic, from somewhere in the Netherlands. Image: Getty.

Trials of autonomous cars and buses have begun on the streets of Australian cities. Communications companies are moving to deploy the lasers, cameras and centimetre-perfect GPS that will enable a vehicle to navigate the streets of any town or city without a driver. The Conversation

Most research and commentary is telling us how the new machines will work, but not how they might shape our cities. The talk is of the benefits of new shared transport economies, but these new technologies will shape our built environment in ways that are not yet fully understood. There’s every chance that, if mismanaged, driverless technologies will entrench the ills of car dependency.

As with Uber and the taxi industry, public sector planners and regulators will be forced to respond to the anger of those displaced by the new products the IT and automobile industries will bring to the market. But can we afford to wait?

Three competing interests

Three distinct groups are giving form to the idea of driverless vehicles. Each has its own corporate proponents and target markets, and its own, often competing, demands on citizens, regulators and planners. Each will make its own demands on our streets and public spaces.

First, the traditional car makers are adding “driverless” features to their existing products. They have no compelling interest in changing the current individual ownership model. Their target consumer is someone who values private vehicle ownership and enjoys driving.

These carmakers’ challenge is to win over drivers sceptical about “their” car doing things they can’t control, whether that is behaving differently in traffic or performing unescorted journeys. But, if successful, these new cars will make driving easier and so encourage more travel and ever-expanding suburbs.

US start-up company nuTonomy launched driverless taxis in Singapore in 2016. Image: EPA/nuTonomy.

Second, cashed-up IT disruptors like Google and Uber see new types of vehicles and new patterns of ownership as the basis for new transport economies. They want lightweight, utilitarian “robo-taxis” owned by a corporation and rented by the trip. Travellers will use phone apps or their next-generation successors to do this. This, in the jargon, is “mobility as a service”.

These companies’ ambition is to carve out a large niche in competition with private cars, taxis, conventional public transport and even non-motorised transport. Fleets of shared vehicles in constant circulation can reduce the number of individually owned cars and, in particular, the need for parking.

In some circumstances, this may support more compact urban forms. But while sustainability or social objectives might be part of the pitch, the profit motive remains dominant.

Third, public transport operators can see opportunities and challenges in driverless technologies. Already, Vancouver reaps the benefits of lower operating costs for its driverless elevated-rail system.

In Vancouver, the train pulls into a station with no driver on board.

Savvy operators understand that new vehicle technology is only valuable if it is integrated with traditional public transport services and with cycling and walking. This means central coordination. Vitally, it also requires control of the information platforms needed to provide multimodal mobility.

Such levels of planning and regulation conflict with Google’s “disruptive” free-market ambitions. European operators, who are in a more powerful position in economic and social life than their Australian counterparts, are already mobilising for this contest.

Whatever the technology, transport needs space

Many claims for the benefits of driverless technologies rely on the complete transformation of the existing vehicle fleet. But the transition will not be smooth or uniform. Autonomous vehicles will face a significant period of mixed operation with traditional vehicles.

Freeways are likely to be the first roads on which the new vehicles will be able to operate. Promoters of these vehicles might join forces with the conventional car lobby to demand extra lanes. This would dash the hopes of many that driverless cars will lead to reduced space for mass movement of cars.

After the freeways, the next objective will be to bring driverless cars, trucks and buses onto city streets. This will require complex systems of sensors and cameras.


The ambition is to allow all users to share road space much more safely than they do today. But, if a driverless vehicle will never hit a jaywalker, what will stop every pedestrian and cyclist from simply using the street as they please? Some analysts are predicting that the new vehicles will be slower than conventional driving, partly because the current balance of fear will be upset.

Already active travellers are struggling to assert their right to the streets of Australian cities. Just imagine how much worse it would be if a dominant autonomous-vehicle fleet operator demanded widespread fencing of roadways to keep bikes and pedestrians out of the way.

The presence of driverless cars cannot alter the fact that space for urban transport is severely constrained. For travel within and between compact urban centres, we will need more and better high-capacity mass transit as well as first-class conditions for walking and cycling.

The integration of conventional public transport networks with shared autonomous vehicles, large and small, offers many opportunities for a much improved service. But that will happen only if this objective is the major focus of investment, innovation, planning and regulation.

Researchers and policymakers need to move rapidly to gain a holistic and systematic understanding of the multiplicity of driverless-vehicle scenarios and the potential harm that some might contain. The technologies are not an unalloyed good, and governments will need to do more than just be “open for business”.

John Stone is senior lecturer in transport planning at the University of Melbourne. Carey Curtis, is professor of city planning & transport at Curtin University. Crystal Legacy is Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University. Jan Scheurer, is senior research fellow at Curtin University.

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

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.