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Navigating the urban form for autonomous vehicles


"The future is our business" says Chris Shepley, as he dodges carpet bombs to consider the possible affects of autonomous vehicles on our landscapes and our lives

I was reading the other day about drones. According to an enthusiastic expert, they will replace all those delivery vans, soonest, and clear the streets for the rest of us. Each van presumably contains several loads. So if each load is stuck to a drone I envisage, in our cities, a sky thick with flying parcels, the sun obscured by the products of John Lewis. We’ll all be wearing crash helmets. But if the carpet currently in our hallway, awaiting collection by a neighbour inconsiderate enough to be out when the delivery man called, were to fall from a drone onto my head, it would be the end of this column. A new meaning for the term ‘carpet bombing’.

Others, of course, say that these deliveries will be made by driverless cars, or ‘autonomous vehicles’ (AVs). This is an area that could have profound implications for transport and urban form, yet there seems to be surprisingly little debate about it within the profession.

Maybe this is because there is still a lot of uncertainty. This, say some, could be the biggest revolution since the invention of the car itself. But, say others pointing to recent accidents, revolutions sometimes don’t happen.

Research (at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) says AVs might enable every passenger to get to his or her destination at the time they need to be there with 80 per cent fewer cars. But others (Samaras, Carnegie Mellon University) think AVs will expand the driving population, make mobility more attractive, and increase traffic by 14 per cent. This is the sort of thing that makes planning hard.

"Is all this socially acceptable – can we get the petrolheads out of their habits?"

The introduction of AVs will be a gradual process, and we have a bit of time to think about it. But in some visions the end state is dramatic, with private ownership of vehicles almost redundant – you simply finger an app and the thing turns up for your pleasure. After a journey (taking the algorithmically calculated optimal route) spent lounging on the integral sofa, you disembark and it glides off to give satisfaction to the next passenger. Other visions are less radical, with a degree of private ownership remaining.

Some things are clearish, however. Vehicles will be able to travel closer together and therefore make better use of existing road space. The average private car at present spends 95 per cent of its time parked; with AVs, there could be much less demand – even no demand – for car parking in city centres, thus freeing up masses of space for other uses; nor in the ultimate scenario any need for parking at home. But there may be a need for parking areas outside town to store the things when not in use.

Life will, at least in theory, be safer, and it may be possible to do away with a great deal of signage and street clutter. Optimists think many streets might be decommissioned and turned into new parks or play areas.

It’s also suggested that all this will tend to increase urban sprawl, since it will be so easy to travel and to use the time well; but then we planners may have something to say about that.

Then there are the threats. Is all this socially acceptable – can we get the petrolheads out of their habits? What about insurance – who’s to blame if you run me over while you’re asleep in an AV? And will the Russians hack the system and generate pile-ups on the M6?

And how does this relate to public transport systems? Maybe, in an integrated system, AVs will deliver people to the nearest rapid transit system rather than penetrating cities.

My skills in bouncing pebbles across water have been widely admired, and this piece is a similar surface-skimming exercise. But we do need to get a wider debate going about this, pretty soon. It may not happen until some way into the future; but the future is our business.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector