Love them or hate them, autonomous vehicles are on their way

The pod has landed. Image: Getty.

Like Marmite, Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) tend to polarise opinion. People either love or hate them, with little in-between. Reports on the topic reflect that division, rich in imaginings of what utopia or dystopia CAVs will eventually lead to. Some imagination is required, given that nobody can predict with any accuracy exactly how CAVs will evolve, how fast and with what results.

What we can say for certain is that the CAVs’ journey has already begun. Whether it is smartphone integration or remote diagnostics, automatic braking or lane assist, vehicles with connected and autonomous features are already amongst us. What is also certain is that a transition to fully autonomous vehicles will be messy, uneven and with no obvious end point.

Despite this, many reports on CAVs focus on the implications of an as yet hypothetical scenario where all vehicles are fully connected and autonomous, missing out many of the difficult issues that will have to be grappled with along the way. Crucially, it will be cities that will have to deal with the consequences if these issues are not given the attention they deserve. That’s why the Urban Transport Group’s new report Automatic for the People? urges national government to place cities’ involvement in CAVs front and centre.

The report explores some of the key challenges cities face on CAVs – for example, the viability of a sharing model for vehicle use upon which so many visions of a CAV future are based. At present, it appears much of the public is not sold on the idea of sharing vehicles with strangers. If, instead, individualised “pods’ find favour with the public, what will the implications for public transport, walking and cycling be? In the US, evidence shows that the ease and comfort of ride-hailing is already eating into these modes. How can cities ensure they gain a competitive edge, a vital task given the benefits they bring to health, environment, inclusivity and economic development? 

Much is made of the potential economic benefits of CAVs, with estimates placing their value to the UK economy at around £50bn per year by 2030, but cities will also need to consider their potential costs. 

It is widely acknowledged that CAVs will require roads to be maintained to a higher standard than that needed for human drivers. Current CAV technology can be completely thrown by a low hanging tree branch or a sign with even the most subtle graffiti. With an existing road maintenance backlog and a severe lack of funds to address it, where will the money be found? Furthermore, increasingly connected vehicles will bring with them a flood of data on everything from travel patterns to the condition of infrastructure. Will city authorities have the funding, people and skills to make the most of the deluge?

Without careful consideration of these and a number of other difficult issues, the often cited potential benefits of CAVs around safety, the environment, inclusion and economic development may never be fully realised. 

With this in mind, we’re calling on the state to support cities as they navigate along the uncertain CAVs trajectory. National government should provide guidance on managing a prolonged and patchy transition period which gives transport authorities an overview of the issues they need to consider and the contingencies they may need to implement. A legal and regulatory framework which allows them to plan and respond dynamically to developments including powers to innovate as well as protect the interests of their people and places is essential in supporting this process.

We want to see a balanced research programme into the impacts of CAVs to inform planning and decision making. In particular, more focus should be given to the highways CAVs will run on, not just the vehicles themselves. To assist in planning effectively for CAVs and other future transport developments, transport authorities need long-term funding certainty to give them the space and security to think strategically and recruit and retain the people and skills they need.

Ultimately, city transport authorities need a place at the top table alongside national policy makers and CAV developers. Driven by the interests of their communities, they are well placed to ensure that CAVs are truly “automatic for the people” and reflect wider goals around inclusion, place-making and the economy.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group and author of the report Automatic for the people? Issues and options for transport authorities on connected and autonomous vehicles.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.