How will cities be impacted by the first wave of autonomous cars?

Press the button. Image: Aviva.
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In the future, everything about cars as we know them may change. Aviva is preparing for that future by conducting tests on connected and autonomous vehicle technologies through extensive real-world trials.

Imagine this scene: It’s the year 2040, and Tom’s home virtual personal assistant has summoned an autonomous car to his home in Edinburgh. He will be attending a meeting in London in a couple of hours. The autonomous car is taking him to a mobility hub, where he will board a pre-booked seat on a Hyperloop. Half an hour later he’ll arrive in London. Tom will walk the rest of the way, or he may even get into a shared shuttle to get to his ultimate destination.

There are incremental steps to get to this future – ten, twenty, and thirty steps along the way that are easier to imagine – and one step we can see happening in the future is fully autonomous vehicles. However, understanding the impact of these vehicles and how people might use them is a challenge. We know that cars with semi-autonomous features are available, but drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take control in all cases.  

Autonomous cars today

There are no autonomous vehicles currently available to buy. We haven’t reached the stage where a truly autonomous vehicle has been designed, tested, manufactured, approved, priced or marketed. Until that happens, along with the development of legislation and infrastructure, we will see trials aiming to find answers to the huge number of questions we all have. New ways of accessing transport are emerging and subscription services and shared mobility models mean private consumers may not be the car owners of the future. Fleet operators are more likely to purchase or lease autonomous vehicles.

There are vehicles being tested in a variety of situations around the world. Most notable is Waymo’s ‘robotaxi’ service in Phoenix, Arizona. The company has deployed self-driving cars onto public roads, aiming to integrate the service with a commercial ride-hailing network. There are also trials happening in the UK. In fact, Aviva is a Founder Member of the Smart Mobility Living Lab: London.

The Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMML), based in Greenwich, provides a real-life environment to test and evaluate new technology, including connected and autonomous vehicles. Along with Honda, BP, Centrica and Hastings Direct, we’re on a journey to answer the burning questions around the future of mobility. The autonomous vehicle trials will be taking place around Woolwich in London.

Autonomous cars will change cities

It’s hard to predict what will change in cities once fully autonomous cars become available, but I’ve had the luxury of being able to create personas and run them through a series of future scenarios for my job. Sometimes they seem far-fetched and technically improbable. More often than not, the scenarios are realistic – and when based on facts like environmental factors, technological innovation, legislation, and manufacturing plans and predictions – a picture of the future slowly emerges. One such scenario is the story of Tom’s morning I invited you to imagine above.

The real certainty for how cities will change is that public transport has to evolve dramatically and blend into a mixed mobility ecosystem. This should see fewer individual vehicles congesting our living spaces and more advanced shared systems, freeing up parking spaces. Oh, and of course: more trees!

The transition to autonomous cities

It’s not so much a question of ‘when’ cities become fully autonomous, but a question of how autonomous and connected services will become integrated into our cities – and how will they work seamlessly with people and businesses. Do we have a flexible infrastructure and are we receptive to the major transformation, disruption and cost that some of these changes will require?

Already, we’re seeing new buildings being built with the tech required for connected living, together with charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Scale this up to communal living spaces and mixed commercial properties and you start to see the challenges faced in planning such an environment. I’m certain though, the first thing we’ll notice about our cities is cleaner air. Beyond that, who knows?

I wouldn’t consider the evolution of mobility as a ‘change over’ to connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), more an adoption and integration of CAVs in certain aspects of life. Mobility is about moving people, goods and services and CAVs are a component of this. To get to the point of having CAVs working ubiquitously in a city environment, one has a multi-faceted set of impacts to address.

Some are positive and others less so. Imagine for example, if all taxis were robotaxis. Where would the former drivers work? If all connected vehicles were also able to predict their need for repair… and fix themselves. And what if cars cleaned themselves, and they never crashed into each other, accidents were a thing of the past, what impact would that have on society?

I’m asked when we’ll see autonomous vehicles in everyday life almost every day, but that’s a very hard question to answer. The adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles depends on the circumstances. Personal individual mobility and commercial industrial mobility will dramatically differ. The latter has already adopted autonomous vehicles over the last few decades, from the Docklands Light Railway to heavy industrial mining trucks. These don’t hit the headlines, but have been successfully used to improve movement, efficiency and safety.

So, we’re already starting to see autonomous vehicles in everyday life – they just aren’t the ones you may have noticed.

Andreas Mavroudis is Senior Mobility Futures Manager at Aviva.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

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With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

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While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

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Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).