WILL DRIVERLESS CARS SOLVE URBAN PLANNING PROBLEMS?
A white dash surrounded by a fire engine red, encased in an octagon. The stop sign is a powerful and ubiquitous message ingrained in our subconscious: best you obey, because you need me more than I need you.
But will that sign carry any significance for our grandchildren? Why should it if cars are to become autonomous, and drivers’ licences, like rotary dials, will become family keepsakes. That reality might still be years away, but a revolution thunderously on the go is closer than we may think.
It also means that rail – an antiquated infrastructure requiring a multi-billion dollar investment to upgrade – is an inadequate solution for tomorrow’s cities. Roads will remain part of our future alongside other types of transport infrastructure.
But exactly what kind of transformation is required of them and how will they be operated to ensure they are the safest and most sustainable form of travel? A mindset of ‘patching potholes’ is dangerous; we need to pave fresh avenues of innovative thinking.
Two sides of the coin
Currently, the AV narrative is a hotbed for speculation – there’s the utopian view, according to UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center’s Susan Shaheen, that depicts a driverless world as a highly streamlined, integrated and human-centred urban order. In this world, well-enforced government regulations ensure the ease with which traffic flows throughout city streets. There is little congestion, and no sounds of frustrated motorists honking, thanks in part to lower rates of car ownership – people in this future prefer to drive cars ‘on-demand’.
Conversely, the dystopian view suggests that driverless cars will exacerbate existing environmental problems. A recent Yale study found that if AV fleets are not electrified using renewable energy, by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution could increase by 50 percent. With more AVs on the road, more congestion and production-based pollution will be a likely result, while system glitches could trigger massive travel disruption.
Are the streets safer?
On August 17, 1896 in London, 44 year old Bridget Driscoll stepped off the pavement and into the history books as the first person to be killed by a motor car. At the inquest, coroner William Percy Morrison said he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.”
Sadly those hopes have gone unrealised. The WHO counts more than 60 million road deaths and 1.5 billion serious injuries since that fateful day 122 years ago. Auto-related fatalities have generally declined since 1970 in western countries, yet more than 1.25 million people continue to die each year in road traffic accidents. It could be said, that as long as humans are at the wheel, road safety remains a leaky bucket.
Automated vehicles, on the other hand, offer a very different narrative that could save lives – only one accident has been found to put Google’s AV at fault, after 1.5 million miles travelled. The problem, however, is that even with the promising results of these experiments, people remain sceptical about not being in control, and the AVs’ inability to make ‘moral’ decisions: How will AVs assure the safety not only of its passengers, but also of the bystanders and pedestrians along the way, when mechanical failures and collisions occur? Which lives, if forced to choose, matter most?
Contributing to naysayers’ views is another question: “How do we get there? Is it even possible to facilitate this transition in a way that, over the next decade or two, humans and robots can successfully co-navigate the roads?”
It’s evident that cities pose far trickier challenges, given their diversity of interchanges, mixed-use traffic and human activity. With humans remaining in the mix and on the road, the error for margin is huge. The experts at McKinsey concluded in a recent study that AV software is still in its infancy when it comes to ensuring a fail-safe mechanism to intuitively navigate such a busy (and messy) landscape.
“As long as they share the road with pedestrians, bikes, and human-driven vehicles, self-driving cars will not be able to reach their full utility. The question is, what would cities have to sacrifice to unlock that utility?”
Some cities are attempting to answer that question posed by CityLab writer Benjamin Schneider by proposing to repurpose and renovate old infrastructure into dedicated AV lanes. In
New York City, the NYC Loop design proposal converts and converges major cross streets into expressways that would then together form a loop to encircle Manhattan, with walkways above a circular highway. Over time, as more AVs join these roads, corridors can be reimagined as recreational areas or bikeways.
The idea of overhead pedestrian pathways to facilitate mass flow is a red flag for city planning. But a question looms: With the time saved, and convenience of self-driving cars inspiring more to join the roads, will AVs actually solve our congestion problems?
Atlanta’s smart corridor plans have presented their own set of problems. In their case, it’s the local Georgia Tech students who have a propensity to jaywalk.
For now, the proposed AV highway is still a road with intersections and stop signs, designated for automated buses, until the hurdle of unpredictable intersections can be overcome.
The issue is not a simple one when it comes to transforming our current infrastructure with new airports, roads, and hyperloops. Naturally, the solution is not to tear our cities down, but to work with what we have and repurpose flow and function. There are several perspectives to consider, and we’ll have to invite them all to the table as cities evolve.
We also need to consider taxation and legislation as an integrated part of our infrastructure. Many countries, such as in the United Kingdom and the European Union, already do – with annual vehicle road taxes based on carbon emissions. Progressive nations like Norway go even further with zero taxes on fullyelectric new vehicle sales and 100 percent tax on new petrol and diesel sales. Given that by 2030, some European countries are set to outlaw the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, should we look at how policies such as tax incentives can change human behaviour and consumer decisions? Should we entice and legislate our way to a utopian world of clean, green, safer autonomy on our roads?
Start from scratch
Other options are emerging as exciting (and far easier) solutions to the AV revolution. Since the turn of the Millennium, hundreds of urban mega-projects – fully master-planned and funded ‘cities in a box’ such as King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia and Songdo in South Korea – have been sprouting up around the world. Their modernity has untied them from any antiquated systems and they are agile enough to absorb the latest smart technology. They also have a good deal of autonomy, because they’re privately owned and void of reams of red tape that restrict conventional cities.
Developments such as Babcock Ranch in Florida are embracing renewable power and AVs as their new normal. Traditional car transport is restricted there, with virtually no resistance to the rule because homeowners signed onto the vision. There’s much room for design change, as technology evolves, and the ranch has been used to test dummy new good ideas like automated package delivery. That Google, too, has been building a mock city called Castle, just 100 miles east of Silicon Valley, to test its selfdriving cars is evidence of a long list of cities emerging as potential design solutions for the 21st century.
With the smart revolution underway and AVs an evident imperative in the new city narrative, private and public sectors need to seriously consider where and how they can leapfrog conventionality. The obvious way, when stars align and funds flow unrestrained, is to start from scratch. But, most of our paving will be in repurposing what we already have, roads, taxation and legislation, and a steady case of trial, error, fail and repeat, as we enter a whole new paradigm.
Navigating this change, we’ll increasingly pull down our street signs. And while we’ll have no eye contact with the guy who gives directions, perhaps our success won’t be measured so much by the state of our smart technology, but by the degree to which we still ‘own the roads’ and move around safely.
This post originally appeared on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog in October.