Autonomous Vehicles

Part A: Their impact on cities

By: Stelios Rodoulis

Introduction

Driverless cars are fast becoming one of the hottest topics in the transport industry. It may seem futuristic but Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) that drive themselves with little or no human input are not far away. Traditional car manufacturers and Google are testing self-driving vehicles, which in essence are new mobility paradigms. Many cars already feature autonomous technology such as auto-braking, automatic parking and lane assistance. These auto-control systems are designed to step in at the last moment to avert or mitigate the severity of the crash and are becoming increasingly common.

AVs offer many benefits and if implemented to their full potential AVs could revolutionise the way we live, travel and work, transforming our cities and improving our quality of life. Despite significant barriers until the full implementation of this technology, AVs could change the shape and aesthetics of the urban environment leading to cleaner, safer, more sustainable and prosperous cities.

The aim of this article is to be thought provoking through examining what are likely to be the most significant changes to our cities, with impact on roads, traffic, parking, infrastructure investments and land use. The objective of this article is to offer a glimpse of this brave new world and ‘plant the seed’ of driverless-ation to urban and transport planners’ minds.

Characteristics of AV technology

Disruptive technology

AVs are poised to be the next disruptive technology to transportation. The diagram below provides indicative historical shifts in travel mobility over time and the disruptive impact of new modes such as rail, cars and aviation. The challenge for the city planners and managers is to understand how quickly AVs will disrupt current patterns of mobility and land use.

Ultimately AVs will need no input from the vehicle occupants, other than advising the destination. AVs will depend on smart infrastructure and technology platforms (databases and networks); vehicles will communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure. They will be able to operate themselves without people in them, deliver items, find appropriate parking and park on their own. While travelling in an AV, you will be able to sleep, eat, email, work or meditate. In short, the future car will become a space of activity rather than just a means of transport.

While this scenario might seem a little intimidating, AVs promise significantly improved safety, economic efficiency, smarter, faster and more reliable travel, low emissions, increased productivity and enhanced quality of life.

Safety

The World Road Association estimates that human behaviour is a contributing factor to over 90% of road accidents[1]. More than 1 million people worldwide are estimated to be killed every year in road traffic accidents, with 20–50 million suffering non-fatal injuries. By 2020 the World Health Organisation[2] estimates that annual fatalities on the worlds’ roads will increase to 1.9 million people.

AVs could contribute to a significant reduction of road accident risks due to effective co-ordination between vehicles and infrastructure; meaning faster reaction times and less chance of driver error. Computerised communication conveying information between vehicles and traction conditions, accidents and congestion will also allow cars to change their route ahead of time, thus avoiding hazardous situations.

Economics

Road accidents result in a huge economic cost. Productivity losses, property damage, medical costs, rehabilitation, delays, legal costs, emergency services, insurance and costs to employers are all components that contribute to the economic impact of road accidents. A study carried out by the US Department of Transportation[3] estimated the direct and indirect economic cost of road accidents in the US for a single year. In 2010 there were 32,999 fatalities, 3.9 million non-fatal injuries, and 24 million damaged vehicles, which cost approximately US$277 billion to the US economy. AVs may not be able to eradicate completely road accidents, but can greatly reduce this cost.

As future scale is achieved, operating costs such as drivers’ wages and parking will reduce. By removing the cost of placing a driver behind the wheel, it might become cheaper and more preferable to summon an AV on demand (via your smartphone) than to actually own and drive a car. Thus, vehicle ownership patterns will change since some people will not need or desire to own a vehicle. AVs will extend the concept of Personal Public Transport, such as car-sharing schemes.

Another economic characteristic of AVs, is that it will make vehicles more economically efficient through better utilisation. Shared vehicle fleets, will be better utilised as the large amount of time vehicles spend idle in garages will diminish and also reduce the need for parking.

Smarter + faster = efficient

The introduction of AVs also means reduced traffic jams, liberating wasted time. Currently, it’s estimated that the average motorist in the United Kingdom wastes 36 hours a year in traffic congestion. In France and Germany this time is in excess of 40 hours and in the Netherlands it is over 60 hours [4].

AVs will move consistently; with speed set centrally according to road demand, capacity, environmental conditions and geographic area. This would eliminate a large number of traffic jams that are caused by speed inconsistencies and temporary slowing down. AVs will predict changes in traffic conditions ahead of time and alter their route.

They will be able to analyse vast historical databases of past journeys to anticipate likely congestion and suggest the optimal times to travel. Productivity will be improved as time spent in traffic, when it does occur, will be less costly or problematic as people can use their time by working, or for leisure. AVs could even free-up time by travelling unoccupied, for instance carrying out tasks like grocery collection, or delivering items unattended.

The automated nature of AVs will ensure that the most efficient, smooth acceleration for the circumstances will be applied enabling optimal energy utilisation and minimal emissions. The weight of AVs will also be significantly less than manual vehicles through improved safety and thus reduced requirements for heavy protective equipment. This translates to lower emissions both on the road and during the manufacturing process.

Improved quality of life

Many countries have a typical large aging population due to universal improvements in life expectancy and a sustained decline in fertility. Mobility can be challenging for the over 70’s population, who are dependent upon private vehicles and their skills to drive them. As older generations cease driving, people loose mobility. AVs can provide both a private and public transport solution, by offering mobility for the masses regardless of age, physical or driving ability. People with disabilities, teenagers and the rapidly increasing aging population would find new levels of freedom and mobility.

Technological changes and impacts

This section examines what are likely to be the most significant changes to our cities, with impacts on roads, parking, transport infrastructure investment decisions and settlement patterns. The following timeline provides a potential 30 year implementation scenario, assuming AV technology continues to develop at the same pace and without possible issues such as legislation, regulation, costs etc.

Road capacity & congestion

AVs will significantly affect how roads are organised and used. They will also collectively calculate the most efficient route based on historical and real-time data making more efficient use of the road network. However, as mobility is disrupted by this technology, I expect to see a big increase in demand for travel, with types of journeys that we cant even imagine today due to new possibilities. It is a realistic possibility that the new found extra capacity realised by AVs, will be swallowed up by induced demand (which are trips not currently made because of congestion or cost).

The impact on road capacity and congestion is not currently known will directly depend on which technology actually dominates in the future, whether cars end up being completely autonomous, cooperative, connected etc. With what we know today, It is too early to comment on the future of congestion and road capacity. It will also depend on the type and structure of a city — whether it has a grid road layout like in Phoenix for example vs London’s Roman road layout). It will also depend on what Autonomous Vision a city will choose to adopt.

Road design and traffic management

The fundamental design of roads would largely stay the same, since good junction design today is a result of a process where the needs of all users are considered. However, elements such as traffic signals and signage will change; traffic management will be digitally transformed and driven by centrally controlled and remotely monitored data rather than roadside infrastructure. Highways may feature much tighter corner radii for exit and entries, and much shorter merge and diverge tapers as the margin required to allow for human error will diminish. The requirement for physical traffic management infrastructure such as speed humps and safety measures like guard rails and pedestrian protection will also reduce.

Improved urban spaces — decluttering

Fewer hard traffic management measures, improved safety, lower emissions and noise will lead to a better utilised and more attractive urban realm. The removal of road safety and signage clutter in streets will create more space on pavements. In residential or single lane streets, street scaping and shared surface schemes may become more common, especially since fewer cars will park on-street. Housing stock that has been blighted for decades due to proximity to traffic, fumes, noise and physical segregation may become more desirable and increase in value.

Parking

An estimated 30% of driving in many CBDs is attributed to looking for a parking spot, with billions of miles each year estimated to be wasted[7], and in some cities, up to a third of land devoted to parking. The introduction of AVs would mark a major shift in current parking trends, drastically changing where, how and when parking is needed.

AVs would be able to drop passengers off and return for collection when required, decreasing demand for parking in close proximity. A car can drop you off at work and search a live parking database to find itself a car park further away. New infrastructure in the form of pick-up and drop-off bays of the scale currently only seen at airports would become the norm in our cities. Some rented AVs may even be in continuous operation and will not park at all (thus reducing overall demand for parking), or return to depots in less expensive locations where land is more abundant.

Cars will be able to double or triple park themselves since with no drivers, fewer doors will need to be opened so they can park more closely together. Parking lots will also reduce in size due to more efficient use of spaces and smaller vehicles. Existing multi-story car park capacity could be doubled; however, car park infrastructure would need to be redesigned or retrofitted to become connected and data smart.

Consequently, the supply of parking will reduce where land is valuable, putting the land into more productive uses. Demand for roadside parking would also diminish, enabling additional road capacity for AVs or reallocated for other transport modes such as cycling.

These impacts will vary according to how car-dependent a city currently is — high car dependency has the potential to offer more land to be released for other uses. With fewer requirements for nearby parking and creating greater capacity, AVs have the potential to liberate expanses of valuable land currently devoted to car transport. Presented with an envious dilemma of what to do with the extra road capacity and land release, cities need to have clear appreciation of what land is likely to become available and a strong vision on how to utilise this land.

Public transport

The impact of AVs on public transport would vary from city to city dependent on existing public transport provisions, local authority support and uptake of technology. AVs have the potential to complement, or replace existing public transport in low and medium density, and high car dependent cities.

In larger, denser cities, metros, light rail and trams will continue to deliver millions of people to their destinations. Even with AVs, it will be difficult to compete with the 70,000+ people that can be carried per direction, per hour, on mass public transport systems.

AVs could become a feeder mode to public transport for commuters, increasing urban quality of life and journey experience, by shortening commuting trips to the train station. For example, AVs could drop-off passengers at rail stations for onwards travel and then park elsewhere where it is cheap (or return home). This reduces the need for expensive car parking to be provided at rail stations.

Bus operations will change significantly. Fixed and timetabled routes could be replaced by on-demand AVs transporting people door-to-door. People may have the option to share the AV with other passengers for part or the whole route, thus paying less. Otherwise, passengers could pay a premium and travel to their destination alone. This on-demand service would eradicate the perennial inefficiency of most bus services whereby buses are significantly underutilised outside peak periods, especially on suburban bus routes.

Traditional taxis could be the first mode of transport to be replaced by AVs, perhaps even symbolising the transition to a new age of driverless-ation. Transport authorities must carefully forecast this change in demand and reallocate accordingly. Despite the many possible forms of AV ownership, transport and city authorities should make AVs an extension of public transport, so that AVs are made accessible to all citizens.

Infrastructure investments

Transport infrastructure has a long planning gestation period with life-cycles of 50+ years. The introduction of AVs could significantly impact where infrastructure funding is allocated. In the context of potential significant liberation of road capacity on existing networks, the requirement and economic case for new road infrastructure could be reduced.

This has the potential to enable funding to be reallocated and applied to alternative infrastructure and amenities. Given the lifespan of road infrastructure, those forecasting and planning for infrastructure will need to strike a balance between meeting short and medium term demand versus longer term demand from a predominantly AV fleet.

Urban Sprawl

It is difficult to make any predictions at this stage on the impact of AVs on urban planning. The case against AVs speculates that sprawl and vehicle kilometres travelled will increase as people are prepared to travel greater distances due to faster, more efficient and comfortable travel. This promotes lower density lifestyles where land is cheap but further away from employment or schools.

One way to manage this is through road pricing, by charging through a combination of location, vehicle occupancy, time of day and distance travelled. With AVs it will be easier to price individual journeys in comparison with the blunt tool of cordon charging systems in use in London and Singapore. By using AV-enabled pricing policies cities will be able to make their preferred trade-off between suburban sprawl, transport efficiency and the amount of land devoted to roads and parking. AVs will create new policy menu for authorities, but foresight and vision is needed at an early stage, in order to produce desired and positive outcomes.

Conclusion

This article discusses the different characteristics of autonomous vehicles and the impact they are expected to have in modern cities, for instance regarding the road capacity and design, parking and infrastructure in general. The article also consists of a second part that will mostly focus on the challenges of autonomous vehicles and also provide a view from the author about driverless cars in Cyprus. Part B will be published in the following week.


We would like to thank Stelios Rodoulis for writing this article for CySE and wish him success in his future endeavours.

References:

1. World Road Association (2013), Road Accident Investigation Guidelines for Road Engineers
2. World Health Organisation (2013), Fact Sheet N°358
3. US Department of Transportation & NHTSA (2010), The Economic Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010. Report No. DOT HS 809 446
4. INRIX (2012), 2012 Traffic Scorecard
5. P.A.T.H (2012), Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways — California Program. Presentation by S. Shladover
6. Tientrakool P., Ya-Chi Ho & Maxenmchuk N. (2011), Vehicular Technology Conference (VTVFall), IEEE
7. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Research (2012)
8. ULTRA PRT website: http://www.ultraglobalprt.com/wp­content/uploads/2012/02/BPA­2012­PR.pd
9. Rodoulis S. (2011), ‘Driverless Trains in London: Perceptions and Reality’, University of Westminster