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Driving the future of autonomous vehicles – why cities need to start setting the rules

Envisioning your daily commute in an autonomous, or “self-driving” vehicle might feel far-fetched, but it is looking increasingly likely that the first commercially available offerings will be hitting our streets sooner than previously predicted.

Over the past year, we’ve seen the testing of self-driving cars and buses move from private facilities to cities in a number of urban pilot schemes – attracting considerable attention from the media and the general public alike. While the majority of testing continues to happen behind closed doors, it seems an appropriate time for cities to begin setting the rules on how autonomous vehicles will be expected to behave when they do arrive.

Amidst the optimism which surrounds autonomous vehicles, the reality is much more uncertain for cities. While we all hope that their introduction will lead to calmer, safer streets and an end to parking problems, the benefits of autonomous vehicles are likely to take years – most likely ‘decades’ – to fully materialise, meaning that cities will be unable to simply ‘cash in’ and start narrowing lanes, removing parking and reallocating road space. Furthermore, with autonomous vehicles set to offer travelers a new mobility experience, it is entirely conceivable that cities will actually see an increase in traffic volumes and congestion in the short to medium term.

There is also the question of how to deal with pedestrians and cyclists in cities who – unlike autonomous vehicles – can be unpredictable at the best of times. Cyclists in particular regularly bend the rules in order to make space for themselves and get ahead at junctions. The ability to deal with this behaviour in a safe and efficient manner, while still maintaining progress, will be a major hurdle for autonomous vehicles to overcome. While there are some who believe that for autonomous vehicles to be efficient in their movement they will need to be segregated from other users, this seems an impractical solution given the lack of space currently on offer in our cities. Having been somewhat overlooked until now, no one understands the competition between space, function and movement on our streets better than transport and urban planners, and for that reason we have a significant part to play in bringing these vehicles to cities safely.

That said, as planners we have – up until now – tended to focus on single point forecasts. Given the uncertainty surrounding autonomous vehicles and their potential effects on the urban landscape, this focus must shift towards designing for a range of possible outcomes, which can both shape and be shaped by changes in technology. It is also important to keep in mind that the future needs to be formed by the residents of our towns and cities through engaging in conversations, not the usual consultation approach. To influence and ultimately determine how autonomous vehicles will be expected to behave in our streets and public spaces, we need to include our residential and business communities in our planning discussions.

The use of visualisation tools, including augmented and virtual reality, will be key to achieving this healthy debate and – given the potentially polarizing commercial interest in autonomous vehicles and emerging concepts such as MaaS – it will be up to planners to paint a balanced picture of the range of possible options. Streets are complex places, particularly within our town and city centers, and being able to demonstrate how they may look, work and feel in a readily accessible manner will be crucial in gaining support for the changes that will inevitably come.

Steer towards this video to see how we’re using enhanced simulations to drive the future of this exciting technology in the planning of our cities.

With the introduction of autonomous vehicles likely to be zonal, it is important that planners discourage a one-size-fits-all approach. The technology within these vehicles will need to be flexible enough to respond to changing environments with different behavioural sets, especially for those areas of our towns and cities where pedestrians and cyclists are more common or are the intended priority users. Depending on the levels of autonomy offered, and the ability for cities to set the tone of the streets, concepts for such shared space could finally become reality.

Having invested heavily in a 'people-centric' approach to planning and infrastructure in recent years, it is important that the arrival of autonomous vehicles does not undermine the progress made by cities to date. Given the vast sums of private money being invested in autonomous vehicles, it is likely that cities will need to display strong public leadership and collaborate with other cities to ensure that their needs are met.

In the coming months and years, there will undoubtedly be more media coverage detailing manufacturers’ strides towards delivering fully autonomous commercially-ready vehicles. In the meantime, it is important that cities embrace this transitional period of uncertainty they find themselves in, and begin challenging manufacturers to ensure mobility ease and a quality of space not only for the passengers of the autonomous vehicles, but also those who live, work and play around these same streets and communities.

Stuart Gibb is a transport and pedestrian modelling specialist with over 15 years of experience focusing on the visualisation of people movement to showcase and promote shared, resilient cities at CH2M.

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