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WILL DRIVER­LESS CARS SOLVE UR­BAN PLAN­NING PROB­LEMS?

CEO Middle East - - CONTENTS -

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?

Peo­ple prob­lems

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.

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