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.


Here are three actions the UK government should take to clean up Britain’s air

A photograph of... where... where is that? Image: Getty.

Last week’s joint report from the environment, health, transport and  environmental audit parliamentary select committees calling for serious action on toxic air pollution is extremely rare. Four committees, two chaired by Conservatives and two by Labour, and made up of 49 MPs from five different political parties, have come together to call on the government to stop putting public health at risk and provide leadership to tackle what they call a ‘national health emergency’ in the form of air pollution.

This unprecedented step is both right and necessary. As the report highlights, air pollution kills approximately 40,000 people in the UK a year and costs our economy in the region of £20bn. Those at greatest risk of this threat include the elderly, children and those with existing medical conditions. Yet despite the severity of the impacts of air pollution the government’s response has been found severely wanting.

The government has now lost three court cases for failing to provide a plan deemed sufficient to tackle Britain’s toxic air. The UK is failing to comply with EU law that sets out limits for air pollution, and few countries perform as poorly as the UK in terms of the number of areas that are non-compliant. Without major policy changes, most of the UK will remain in breach of legal limits for air pollution into 2025 and beyond.

As the select committee report highlights, one of the primary causes of air pollution (nitrogen dioxide emissions, or NO2) is road transport, and the main source (over three quarters) is diesel vehicles. This increase in diesel-related emissions has been driven largely by the growth in their use: they now make up 36 per cent of the UK’s car fleet (10.7m vehicles), up from 7 per cent (1.6m) in the 1990s. It stems, too, from the failure of diesel engines to deliver the expected reductions in emissions under real world driving conditions compared to test conditions.

Yet the government’s target of phasing out the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 is startlingly unambitious. After all, India has pledged to do it a decade earlier, in 2030, while Norway has set a target of selling only zero-emission vehicles by 2025.

As a bare minimum, any proposals that the government brings forward later this year should include all necessary policy interventions to bring the UK back into compliance with EU and UK law on pollution levels in the shortest possible timeframe. However, the reality is that the scale of the UK’s air pollution problem demands a much bolder response from government. Consequently, IPPR has made the case for an integrated strategy across three key areas of policy.

First, the government should use legislation, regulation and road pricing to progressively phase out diesel cars across the UK, in order to clean the air and speed up the shift to cleaner vehicles and alternative forms of transport. This means an explicit pledge to phase out the use of diesel cars in all major urban areas by 2025, and to ban them completely thereafter as part of a new Clean Air Act.

The ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, currently proposed for 2040, should be brought forward to 2030. Moreover, the government should also mandate the creation of a network of clean air zones covering all major urban areas in the UK, which, crucially, should enable local authorities to charge the drivers of dirty vehicles.

Second, the government should use its industrial strategy to invest in the research, design and commercialisation of new clean vehicles – including an increasing research and development spend, and tax reductions for industry – and provide a financial incentive for consumers to buy them through a smart scrappage scheme, in order to increase supply of green vehicles while reducing the cost of them.

Third, the government should focus on encouraging what is called ‘smart mobility’. At the moment, much attention goes into investing in public transport and the infrastructure needed to create a favourable climate for more efficient travel – including encouraging walking and cycling– in the UK’s cities. This must continue.

But these efforts should be complemented by the expansion of car clubs, journey planners and other applications of digital technology that encourage shared and efficient travel. A scrappage scheme could provide discounts or credits for these schemes, relieving people of expensive private car use altogether. Developing a full array of alternatives to private car use is key because around half of particulate matter air pollution from road transport – the tiny pieces of dirt that can get into our blood stream – comes from braking, tyre wear and tear, and dust on the road, all of which will not disappear with more electric vehicles. Vehicle miles need to be reduced, alongside diesel engines. 

Furthermore, while attention has been focused, quite rightly, on the illegal and lethal levels of NO2 emissions that arise from road transport, we should not forget other contributors to air pollution. This is why IPPR is currently examining the evidence on pollution from other sources such as wood stoves, coal fires and smokeless fuel. While the pathogenic pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10) to which these sources contribute remain within legal limits, of the 40,000 annual premature deaths from air pollution, 29,000 are attributable to these types of particulates. 

In this respect, Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity – to decide what kind of legal limits to set on an all types of air pollutants. The government must seize this opportunity to not only tackle this public health emergency head-on but to become a global leader determined to reduce air pollution and to mark out itself out as a frontrunner in the transition to a low carbon, greener and cleaner economy.

Luke Murphy is the Associate Director for the Environment, Housing and Infrastructure Team at IPPR. He tweets at @lukesmurphy.