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Preparing for a driverless future?

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By Peter Allchorne


Published 23 April 2020


The journey to vehicle automation is well under way, but there is much more to be done to enable the safe deployment of driverless cars when they come to market early this decade. Technology continues to outpace regulation; issues of data sharing and cyber security remain unresolved; and the current Public Health crisis has revealed that the UK’s current network infrastructure is not capable of sustaining connected and automated vehicles on a mass scale.

It is widely anticipated that the current global crisis will act as a catalyst for change, accelerating the pace of digitisation across the world. But what does this mean for the connected and automated vehicle development agenda? We asked leading transport planning consultant, Martin Wedderburn for his views on the AV development roadmap amid a global pandemic…

It is not long ago that driverless cars were making the headlines of the national media with the promise that fully autonomous vehicles might only be 5-10 years away; commentators invariably presenting them as either the ultimate panacea to all traffic problems or as a sinister and dangerous menace. Yet in times where the word ‘unprecedented’ is used so frequently, the discussion of futuristic robo-taxis has been drowned out by more pressing concerns. But should businesses still be making plans for the imminent arrival of driverless vehicles on our streets?


A rapidly changing policy and regulatory environment

With UK car manufacturing facing numerous challenges, developing a world-leading R&D capability in vehicle automation technologies is recognised as one crucially important factor in retaining jobs and investment in the UK. The competition is tough and all major car manufacturing nations are seeking to create the conditions to attract investment. One way to get ahead in the global race is to create an appropriate regulatory and insurance framework that allows vehicles with increasing levels of automation to be tested and gradually released to market. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) estimates that the UK is now the world leader in enabling regulations, although it lags behind other countries in enabling infrastructurei.

While the push for autonomous vehicles is largely driven by industrial strategy, the transport planning profession is slowly coming to terms with the potential pros and cons of a world of autonomous mobility. Both the Department for Transportii and Transport for Londoniii have formulated policy in terms of ‘guiding principles’ to steer the deployment of Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAVs). From a policymaker’s perspective, CAVs present the opportunity to significantly reduce road danger and provide accessible transport for all groups in society. Yet they also pose risks if they discourage people from walking, thus reducing everyday physical activity, and increase the number of vehicles on the road.

We have all witnessed the global impact of the movement started by a Swedish teenager calling for action on climate change. The wider public policy landscape in the UK has shifted dramatically with numerous organisations declaring a climate emergency and the implications of the Heathrow expansion ruling on transport strategy beginning to be felt. One immediate impact is a more concerted push for the electrification of the vehicle fleet, which in the short-term is overshadowing the focus on connected vehicle technology. Looking forward there is now increasing political pressure for more fundamental changes to transport policy. Previously marginalised debates about reforms to land use planning, the creation of powerful devolved transport authorities, and even replacing fuel duty with national road pricing are increasingly becoming mainstream. Autonomous vehicles may yet emerge into a different world of mobility than we know today.


Will consumers accept the technology? And what model will they adopt?

Much of the hype around CAVs and their benefits is being generated by the industry promoting them. There remain very real questions about the extent to which consumers want or will accept the technology. On the one hand, some research has shown that some consumers are currently confused or even vexed by the proliferation of intermediate automatic driver assistance technologies. Yet market research by car industry bodies states that consumers are increasingly accepting of the ‘end state’ concept of fully autonomous vehicles at some point in the future.

Consumers will likely also have a choice of how to use autonomous vehicles. Industry analysts distinguish between the ownership model of Car-as-a-Product (CaaP) and the automated robo-taxi model of Car-as-a-Service (CaaS). There is some debate about whether older generations will still feel more comfortable with the vehicle ownership model. But younger generations who never experienced CDs, encyclopaedia or photo albums appear more inclined to see mobility as a digital service.

Ultimately both models may co-exist. The convenience of vehicle ownership will remain most important to residents of lower density suburban and rural areas, although shared autonomous vehicles would also provide much greater mobility to people without access to a car in these areas. In denser urban areas where ride-hailing apps, car sharing and bicycle hire already thrive, on-demand autonomous vehicles could achieve a much higher level of service offering short waiting times and no hassle with parking.


Driverless freight

Goods are not as fussy as people when it comes to adopting new technology. Businesses are already trialling CAVs in many stages of the supply chain, from connected lorries on motorways to neighbourhood takeaway delivery pods.

In recent times as supermarket shelves were laid bare, the media spotlight shone briefly on our Just-in-Time supply chains. Working to keep stock to a minimum and to meet ever decreasing delivery windows, our supply chains are driven by increasing automation through the entire production and distribution process. Driverless freight can be seen as just one step in this trend towards greater automation, where CAVs would function in the road network like in one huge automated distribution centre. But the real impact to supply chains will stem from the combination of CAVs with advanced manufacturing processes such as 3D printing.


Changing lifestyles

The introduction of fully autonomous mobility would have tangible practical impacts, for example as older and younger population groups who are less likely to drive become more mobile at all times of the day. Greater automation of everyday tasks and potentially the ability to use time spent travelling productively should mean that the population as a whole has more time for discretionary activities.

The question is whether people will seek to spend more of this spare time on social interaction in the physical world? Current trends in the National Travel Surveyiv indicate, unsurprisingly, that ‘personal business’ travel is falling as administrative, banking and even medical services are increasingly digital. Yet at the same the data suggests that the number of ‘visit friends at home’ trips is also falling over time, suggesting that more social interaction is being undertaken in the digital world.

In that context it will be interesting to see how people react over time to the current lockdown situations in the UK and globally. When physical distancing restrictions are eventually lifted, will we witness a reaction against digital lifestyles and a desire to reanimate physical spaces of civic, community and social importance? Or will we see rapid innovation in the ways that people interact digitally over the coming weeks, leading to a more permanent drop in physical social interaction and ongoing consequences for the retail and leisure sectors?


Property development: Building in flexibility

The $1 million dollar question being asked by property developers is about the volume of parking required in the future. This depends largely on emerging consumer preferences for vehicle ownership or mobility service models, as well as wider transport policy changes. Building in a degree of flexibility to future parking is therefore crucial.

A recent Centre for Londonv report on designing for new urban mobility in residential developments explored practical ways to future-proof sites for alternative scenarios. Basement parking areas are easier to convert to other uses if they have light wells, an open structure and slightly higher ceilings. Surface parking and multi-storey structures can be positioned and designed to retain future development potential as stand-alone sites.

Finally, any significant increase in the use of mobility services, from today’s ride-hailing apps to autonomous robo-taxis in the future, will require the allocation of space for drop-off and pick-up. Lessons in managing this volume of pick-up/drop-off can be learnt from experience of major transport hubs such as airports, and from cities that have traditionally had large fleets of individual mobility services such as in South East Asia.


This material is provided by Martin Wedderburn. He manages a specialist transport planning consultancy offering strategic advice, research, and forecasting/appraisal studies, as well as pedestrian movement analysis studies for both public and private sector clients with a focus on retail and mixed-use master planning projects. He has wide-ranging experience in transport planning, policy and analysis, and has worked for a wide range of public, private and third sector clients around the world. He takes a holistic view of transport planning questions through his experience of analysing a wide range of transport modes and their wider economic, social and spatial impacts.

iSMMT (2019) Connected and autonomous vehicles 2019 Report: Winning the Global Race to Market
iiDfT (2019) Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy
iiiTfL (2018) Mayor’s Transport Strategy
ivDfT (2019) National Travel Survey: 2018 report
vCentre for London (2020) Building for a New Urban Mobility