Earlier this week we convened a group of transport and cities experts and decision makers to discuss advances being made with Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) and their implications for our cities. The group, which met at Arup in Leeds, was represented by number of sectors including transport technology, planning of major infrastructure projects, regeneration, commercial property, legal, civic advocacy, academic research, and transport planning. Thanks to all who participated.
The UK Autodrive Trials
UK Autodrive is an ambitious three-year project that is trialling the use of connected and self-driving Vehicles on the streets of Milton Keynes and Coventry. It is involving trials of road-based cars, as well as 40 pavement-based low speed ‘pod’ vehicles. Arup are part of the UK Autodrive consortium along with other sector leading organisations.
Ralph Wilson and John Miles, Arup and UK Autodrive, described the trials that are being undertaken in Coventry and Milton Keynes.
One of the connected and autonomous low speed pedestrian based pods being trialed by UK Autodrive
The Big Questions
As well as testing the technology and how Autonomous Vehicle (AV) systems are operated, the trials are exploring questions such as:
- How will AVs affect congestion?
- Can they improve city centre spaces?
- What do the public think?
The group discussed these issues and then considered wider questions such as:
- What are the implications for public transport?
- Will we still need large car parks in city centres and at major railway stations?
- Will it become easier for people to access jobs, boosting social inclusion?
- What are the legal issues?
- What are the economic questions?
- What might be the human factors and public perceptions?
- What is the role for city digital infrastructure?
Congestion and road space
Proponents of AVs make the case that they will reduce congestion because they use road space more efficiently. However, others argue that this will be offset by privately owned AVs returning empty to their owner’s home once they have dropped them off at work.
Much will depend on whether people will use shared ‘car club’ systems, the extent to which they will share journeys, and the provision of parking near to, but not necessarily in, city centres and employment hubs.
More efficient use of road space could lead to increases in, or more intensive use of, capacity. AVs use road space more efficiently meaning additional lanes, or wider pavements could be created. Experience tells us that increased road capacity, in time, fills up with increased traffic. However, there will be potential to incorporate dynamic pricing, which already exists in Singapore for example, to help spread peaks in demand.
The use of low speed autonomous pods on pavements and in public spaces could enable cities to expand their pedestrianised precincts. There is also potential for them to play a role in “last mile delivery” as part of more sustainable urban logistics systems.
Implications for city and infrastructure planning
Because AVs will be able to drop people off at their destination and then drive away to park somewhere else or to pick up another passenger, the need for city centre parking could be reduced. This would allow existing car parks to be redeveloped for more productive uses, enabling the densification of city centres and supporting economic clustering. However, existing property investors, including local authorities, in car parks will need to revise their business models. It should also be noted that better rail, bus and mass transit links also support densification of cities.
We need to future-proof the planning major rail stations. For the masterplan for Leeds Station (already the busiest transport hub in the north of England) incorporating HS2, decisions need to be taken soon about the scheme. However, HS2 to Leeds will not be operational until 2033, and is an infrastructure project for the long term, and we don’t yet know what the long term implications of AVs will be. The plans will need to be flexible. A large car park at the station which is planned today and may be used in the early years of the scheme, may not be required over the longer term, then offering an opportunity for redevelopment.
There is a need for cities to think about how the next generation of digital infrastructure, such as 5G, can support AV systems. AVs will need to verify their position relative to other vehicles and street infrastructure in real-time, and 5G low latency, high bandwidth, small cell digital communication systems may be needed. Systems will need to be open enough to allow different vehicles to communicate as part of them, but need to be secure enough to not be hacked.
Public Transport Systems
There was interest in the potential of AVs, including low speed pods, to widen access to public transport hubs such as stations and park and ride sites. This could feed more people into the system and allow more efficient public transport networks focused on core routes. Uber is already making transport more demand responsive, and AVs could be a further step.
There could also be benefits for social inclusion. AVs could help people without private cars to access jobs and services more easily. They may also increase mobility for people with disabilities (Guide Dogs for the Blind are participants in the Milton Keynes trial). Much will depend on the operating models for AV systems, price points, and the role of comercial providers and potentially the public sector in providing AVs.
Professor Natasha Merat of the Institute of Transport Studies, University of Leeds provided an overview of her research, including using their Virtuosity simulator, into potential behaviours of AV users, and public attitudes. Whilst fully autonomous vehicles could have significant safety benefits, the research indicates that semi-autonomous vehicles pose risks due to drivers over-relying on the autonomous controls.
The interactions between AVs and pedestrians and cyclists pose interesting issues. How do we overcome the lack of eye contact or helpful hand gestures that exist currently between users of streets? There may be a need to delineate parts of public spaces where low speed pods have priority, and accepted norms and protocols will need to evolve.
The initial research on public attitudes to AVs is that many people do not have firm views for or against, but are open-minded. The opportunity for the industry and policy makers is to shape how attitudes develop in hopefully a well-informed way.
CAVs have the potential to transform our cities and our transport network. The technology is advancing rapidly. AVs are already on our roads and streets as part of the trials by the UK Autodrive consortium. Now is the time for city leaders, policy makers and planners to consider the possibilities created by CAVs, and also the risks and limitations, and to set the agenda for how we can mobilise this new technology to reshape our cities for the better.