Technology is improving rapidly, manufacturers are scampering to meet product demand, and consumers are increasingly switching on to the benefits and value of AV in their everyday life. I first drove an autonomous hire car last year on a drive in country Victoria. While the system was limited to driving itself for a minute before I had to put my hands back on the wheel, the weird sensation of the wheel turning itself around bends at 80km/hr and the engine automatically slowing and accelerating was mind-blowing. This was especially true for my passengers - I literally had my feet on the seat and my hands in the air!
But AV has given me another weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, and it has nothing to do with the technology, of which I am a big fan. The feeling relates to the impact of AV on our urban environments. I am not alone - a lot is being written about this, and it mostly seems ambivalent.(1)
There are some serious questions about AV; Will there be more or less cars on the road? Will finding a car space be difficult or easy? Will transport become an equalising force or drive further community division? Will people stop walking and cycling leading to even more community health issues? Will AV bring people together or lead to more isolation?
At the Centre for Building Better Community (CBBC), we’ve been thinking about how AV can be a positive force in our cities. Given that AV is definitely coming - let’s get on board and make it work for us. We’re conscious too that AV is the child of its more fearsome parent - AI (Artificial Intelligence). There is a natural human tendency to be skeptical of new technology - we’ve seen that with the smart-phone and its connection to brain disorders. Surely this new and very helpful thing in our life can’t be all good? What’s the downside? How can I resist this strange new AV technology based on evidence, or even just vague quackery? (2)
The obvious issue first. The science is still out on AV congestion impacts.(3) I suspect it always will be until we’ve actually got a significant part of the vehicle fleet being autonomous. There are supercomputers burbling away at the random variables like human behaviours, road network sensitivities and ratios of autonomous fleet size to public and active transport, but they’ve forgotten one thing - profit. We can assume that a large part of the AV fleet will be privately owned by transport companies looking to make a buck. Out of control congestion is their worst nightmare. We’ve seen Uber push for congestion charges in central London that will impact some of their own drivers.(4) My sense is that in the self-regulating market, transport companies will employ similar tactics and tailor their service and their technology so that it doesn’t contribute to congestion.
It follows that an AV not contributing to congestion, by not moving, is parking. Hence, many are concerned that AVs will park in places that are valuable to non-AV users. Again, I think technology and good design will save us here. AV’s have a much higher tolerance for close gaps, awkward parking spaces and organised end-to-end parking spaces. The efficiency gains are enormous - 50, 80, even 100% and beyond once we consider automated stacking garages. AVs can also head to spaces that are infrequently used or use re-organised existing garages designed just for AV.
Sociologists love talking about the rise of the car-age for the freedom it has offered people (in the developed world anyway!).(5) Urbanists love talking about the rise of the car-age for the imbalance it has created in our cities.(6) Economists love talking about the fact that around 12% of the global economy is attributable to the car one way or another.(7) I’m interested in what happens when previously unproductive time behind a wheel can be used more productively. If for example, a willing employer sees the hour to work as logged-on working time, will the morning peak hour of 8-9am become spread over 7-10am? Will we even have a peak hour? Given the politics of new road construction is shifting towards dealing with freight, rather than the lunacy of trying to eliminate peak hour congestion, I am optimistic that AV will free up road space for everyone, in an AV or not, and lead to more efficient road networks. Certainly, the case for building new roads and freeways is getting tenuous, and those funds can be redirected where they are more needed. Which brings us to public transport.
Public transport is super efficient at moving very large numbers of people on dedicated corridors at moderate speed. AV is efficient at moving very small numbers of people anywhere in a network at relatively high speed. AV can never match what public transport offers, and vice versa. AV can actually assist in increasing public transport patronage, as it also is a kind of public transport in taking people who don’t want to drive to transport hubs, be it bus stops, train stations or airports, like a taxi does now. For these reasons, I think AV will lead to increased public transport investment, and in Melbourne’s case, actually strengthen the argument for an interlaced network of train lines running at frequent intervals.(8) We know public transport users walk more than car drivers, so will AV stop them walking to the station?
The car has undoubtedly contributed to increasing population inactivity and obesity.(9) The true cost of car-dependence to our health system (not including road trauma) is incalculable, so we’d better hope that AV doesn’t make this worse, but somehow encourages more walking and cycling. This is a challenge where good urban design really steps up to the plate, as I’m not convinced the market alone will solve this one. Imagine a community where cars are excluded. Where road space is used in a shared way for other land uses, like playgrounds, vegetable gardens, bushland corridors, and cricket pitches. Where everyone has to walk or wheel at least 10 minutes to the nearest central car garage or AV pick up point? The shift to AV starts to make this more possible than our current cars due to a number of factors, which have more to do with human psychology than transport per se.
When our egos become disengaged from the act of transport, and I mean, we’re not in control of the vehicle, some strange things will happen. Firstly, the stress induced by other people’s behaviour will decrease. (It's a machine’s behaviour, and we’re not watching the road to see it anyway!) Secondly, our tendency to attach our identity to how we drive and what we drive will become limited. (We’re not driving!) And thirdly, the truly shared economy of AV suggests to me that less and less people will own their own car. Brevity prevents me from expounding further, but I’m convinced that all this adds up to a very different relationship that our future society will have with cars than we do now. There will be far fewer cars in total (but yes, each one travelling much further throughout the day), fewer accidents, less wasted emotional energy on near misses and accidents, and quieter more peaceful streets. Is it possible that AV could actually create a stronger sense of community?
To go back to our vision of car-free communities from earlier, there will of course be some vehicle and AV traffic in the retrofitted and new suburbs of the future. But this traffic will be very slow moving and driving itself by its ordained speed limit through ingeniously designed and intricate streets. These streets would be hardly recognisable today. Currently, roads and highways divide places - they create disconnection and barriers for the purposes of safety (real and perceived). Even the most modest suburban culs-de-sac is a no go zone for children, people with disabilities, the elderly and all but the most warrior-like and battle hardened adult on foot or bicycle. This will be turned upside down by the inestimably safe AV.
Streets can become integrators of community, places of gathering and productivity, places for trees and art and intricacy, and yes the odd car. That 7m to 30m of asphalt outside your front door can be largely dug up. This new public space will strengthen relationships between neighbours and their place. Perhaps even travelling in AVs together to go places will build time for human interaction in a way that can’t happen today in single occupancy cars with high stressed drivers.
We at the Centre for Building Better Community are designing and exploring what one of these new streets might look like in our own little piece of Auburn High Street in Melbourne, Victoria - but more of that for future articles.
CBBC is keen to embrace the good things about AV, and challenge those aspects which will deter community wellbeing. Given the technology is inevitable we owe it to ourselves to get prepared for its increasingly pervasive presence - or like the frog in the frying pan, we’ll end up cooked in our own juices. Our intention at CBBC is to continue to work towards communities free of car dependence as a stepping stone to flourishing places. Places where autonomous vehicles are present, but not dominant, where transport is a service to people, not an end in itself.
If you’ve been provoked by this article (intentional!), please let us know so we can share conversation together.
(1) See for example: http://www.infrastructurevictoria.com.au/AVadvice
(3) See for example: http://www.traffic-inside.com/2017/10/13/the-lisbon-study-reloaded
(5) See for example: http://www.its.leeds.ac.uk/projects/MobileNetwork/downloads/AutoEmotionRevised05.doc
(6) See for example: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/1/20/the-negative-consequences-of-car-dependency
(7) There are over 1 billion cars on the world’s roads at an average running cost of US$10,000/year, that’s 12% of GWP.