Driving investment in digital infrastructure
With extensive autonomous vehicle trials already underway in the US and in cities such as Milton Keynes and Bristol, and with the recent Government announcement about motorway trials being introduced, it is apparent that self-driving vehicles are no longer a future proposition. But once they’re widely used, what will their impact be, and how will it affect the way that we plan and deliver our developments?
At the moment, there are no clear timescales, but this is not generally regarded to be a technology issue. Yes, there are still technical challenges, such as reducing the size and cost of the computing systems required to drive the vehicles and ensuring sufficient security to prevent cars being hacked. However, with cars beginning to drive themselves through advanced learning algorithms, rather than relying on being fully programmed, their ability to deal with a wide range of situations is rapidly increasing.
The real issue is customer acceptance, which the motor industry is addressing through a steady introduction of driver aids and systems taking us step by step from self-parking and lane departure warnings to self-driving in congested conditions through to full automation. Potentially, we could see fully self-driving cars in showrooms between 2020-2025, and reasonable market penetration by 2030.
There is no doubt that safety is the industry’s main selling point. Around 95% of accidents are directly attributable to the driver, with around 40% of these related to the driver not perceiving the hazard and a further 30% recognising the hazard but then taking the incorrect action, and we can see how a computer can substantially better this.
In a future where the majority of vehicles are operating autonomously in congested conditions, we would expect to see a reduction in congestion; primarily due to fewer accidents on the network, but also there is the potential for autonomous vehicles to also be connected to the infrastructure, enabling traffic to move much more smoothly and be more intelligently routed.
At the same time, though, we could see more cars on the road, and in particular the aging population will be able to travel by car, whereas otherwise they would not be able to drive. The possibility of zero occupancy trips as your car comes to fetch you from the pub may also be a factor. If we all continue to travel as we do at the moment, albeit in autonomous vehicles, then the reduction on congestion may not be so significant.
We should not look at autonomous vehicles in isolation. Raising awareness around the importance of sustainable travel on health will continue to have an increasing impact on sustainable modes. Societal changes, particularly in the younger generations, will lead to a greater adoption of the sharing economy, with less car ownership and new Mobility as a Service approaches to travel. This, ultimately, should start to reduce car ownership and reduce the need to have a car outside the house in the same timeframe as autonomous vehicles come forward.
Thinking outside of transport, changing patterns of work, faster communications and virtual reality are just a few of the many factors which will impact on how and when we travel. In developing for the future, we need to recognise these disruptive changes to transport and allow for our developments to come forward in a flexible and managed way with the potential to reclaim the road space from the car as we move into the 2030s.