Will autonomous mobility reshape our cities?

Autonomous vehicles represent the next leap in mobility. They are safer, greener, and more convenient – and may also radically transform the cities in which we live and work.
What will autonomous vehicles mean for our cities?

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Cars remain idle for about 95% of the time

Autonomous vehicles the next frontier of vehicular convenience and safety. But beyond that, they also have the potential to radically transform the shape and nature of our cities.

The city is built to accommodate the car. Car parks, driveways, street-side parking, and roads themselves, all dominate the physical spaces in which we live.

However, approaches to urban transport are changing. With the emergence of autonomous electric vehicles, and new commercial models such as ride sharing, urban mobility is facing a gradual but profound transformation. In the SEAM (shared, electric, automated mobility) model, as the name implies, transport options are cleaner, autonomous and a shared asset, available for rent or free use.

And this fundamental change in thinking around mobility presents an opportunity to entirely rethink not only how our cities function but how they are built.

The safer way

The autonomous vehicle’s most immediate advantage is one of safety. Despite high profile accidents, autonomous cars offer a theoretically extremely safe mode of transport – not only do they post far lower accident fatality rates, but, in theory, data from any accident can be fed into a learning database. For every accident any driverless vehicle has, every driverless vehicle could improve.

However, difficulties remain – What are the issues, for instance, of programming an autonomous car to make the decision to swerve to avoid a child playing in the road, if the alternative is hitting oncoming traffic? Is it ethical to program a computer to prioritize human life? Is it even technically possible? And what are the legal implications for a manufacturer in charge of these decisions?

Although the safety proposition is considerable, these hurdles must be overcome. But when they are resolved, it could mean big things for the city.

The city transformed

Central to the advantages of autonomous vehicles is the fact that they can be constantly in use. Cars remain idle for about 95% of the time – but this is not necessarily the case with driverless, autonomous vehicles. A work commuter would be able to rent an autonomous vehicle, and when that journey terminates, the vehicles can attend to other passengers, maximising asset use and reducing idle time.

Multiply this across an entire transport network, and the benefits are considerable. From car parks, to driveways, to roadside parking, US cities dedicate as much as 60% of their land area to housing idle vehicles. Reduce the number of cars on the road, and this land can be redeveloped in a number of ways, from parks to offices to housing.

Fewer cars, but each car shared, and working closer to 100% of the time also means that net carbon emissions are reduced. In Los Angeles, CO2 emissions could be cut by 2.7 million metric tons per year via policies promoting shared AVs and curbing private vehicle use.

Autonomous mobility can also lead to more efficient cities. United on a single smart grid, autonomous vehicles can communicate with central traffic control systems to create a seamless, flowing whole, where traffic jams are a thing of the past. Shared autonomous mobility could also mean the spread of suburbs, as commuters, secure in the knowledge of effective transport options, move to more spacious, comfortable surroundings.

The world of tomorrow? Or the day after?

Right now, around the world, governments are taking steps to create this future. Finland, for instance has authorized the use of autonomous shuttles on the roads of its capital Helsinki. In France, Île-de-France Mobilités – the Parisian transport authority – is testing autonomous shuttles. In the US, UPS delivers medicines to isolated patients using drones. Developing cities, too, have considerable opportunities – mobility advances could mean $600 million a year to these cities in annual societal benefits by 2030.

However, in many respects, autonomous mobility is still some ways from reality. Despite the schemes mentioned, mass rollout of autonomous vehicles has yet to be seen on a city-wide scale.

Nor will autonomous mobility bring the same benefits to different cities. For example, it may be a more compelling proposition for traffic-heavy, grid-based cities like Los Angeles, than for a city like London, with its winding medieval street plans.

And the road itself is long – while the technology is available, it needs to get cheaper.

Though ultimately it could result in cutting cost per kilometre of traveller by up to 30% per user, at present autonomous vehicles remain high-end, premium purchases.

The regulatory landscape also needs to transform. Systemic thinking is happening – the World Economic Forum has published a SEAM Governance Framework, outlining key considerations on the road to autonomous mobility solutions. But in many ways it remains a nascent space.

Despite all this, the benefits are real, and the technology is not going away. For cities who can learn to deploy autonomous mobility solutions effectively, there is an opportunity not just for safer roads, but for all-around greener, more liveable and more sustainable cities.

Photos credits : metamorworks / Shutterstock

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