Leadership on infrastructure provision for autonomous vehicles - tangible implications?

I have previously argued the case for major changes to the infrastructure we will need to support autonomous vehicles, which also supports the current modes of transport our cities rely on so heavily.

In this article I delve into  the possible tangible implications for our cities and the people within them.

ROADS / HIGHWAYS: The freeway system will be the place where managing the mixture of autonomous and traditional vehicles will be most easily achieved. We can quite easily have separated lanes - autonomous vehicles will travel at significant speed, with minimal headway so capacity in that lane would be very high. Whereas in the lanes for traditional vehicles the usual constraints will remain, such as headways, braking distances and so on.

While it’s easy to envisage the opportunities on our freeways, it becomes more challenging on lesser roads where there are one or two lanes in each direction, such as Chapel Street in Melbourne, where there is a mix of vehicles in both directions, trams, jay walking pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and parked cars. There are also challenges with different vehicle types … and we already see glimpses of this with emergency stop braking – cars without it may end up running into the back of cars equipped with the technology. This highlights the challenge before us and one which will be with us for a very long time.  

PARKING / PUBLIC SPACE: The ability of autonomous vehicles to pull up and drop off or pick up, will translate into less congestion and less car parks on our streets, which will free up a substantial amount of land and space which can be used for different purposes, such as open spaces for the community to gather.  [see Volvo video embedded below] The Lisbon study showed on-street parking could be almost removed with a fleet of shared self-driving cars, allowing cities the size of Lisbon to reallocate 1.5 million square metres to other public uses. This equates to almost 20% of the surface of kerb-to-kerb street area (or 210 football pitches).  Researchers at Swinburne University of Technology have shown similar results in Melbourne: an initial analysis of the autonomous mobility scenario shows people travelling in groups and being dropped-off by the self-driving cars would result in both decreased numbers of vehicles required  (reduction of nearly 40% compared to the base-case scenario) and parking space (reduction of nearly 58% compared to the base-case scenario). This frees up a substantial amount of land and space which can be used for different purposes. 

PUBLIC TRANSPORT:  Public transport will still be required but autonomous vehicles will inevitably impact public transport use as we know it today. The Lisbon simulation study suggested the largest benefits for autonomous mobility-on-demand systems are achieved in the presence of high-capacity public transport systems. The research shows that in terms of city-wide impacts on mobility, public transport – particularly high-capacity for longer distances - will still have a strong role to play in urban mobility. Low-capacity public transport modes like buses, shuttles, mini-vans and school buses may be impacted and replaced with autonomous vehicles particularly for those trips that are too long to walk and too short to drive.

We will also see more public transport become autonomous - in late 2015 we saw the introduction of autonomous buses in land-scarce Singapore where it is hoped to improve productivity, safety and reliability of bus services and overcome the lack of bus drivers. 

INTERSECTIONS: Imagine a world without traffic lights! A team of researchers at the University of Texas in Austin claims intersections of the future will not need traffic lights or stop signs. Instead, the autonomous vehicles’ movement around intersections will be managed by a virtual traffic controller. 

CYCLE LANES AND PEDESTRIAN PATHS: With the advent of autonomous vehicles, it’s possible to create safer shared spaces… vehicles will integrate seamlessly with other modes, particularly walking and cycling. We will start to see vehicle technology developers and urban planners design transport systems which involve automated vehicles, with the aim of pedestrians intuitively understanding how the vehicles operate. 

BUILDINGS: Our city buildings will be re-imagined - from the structure to the flow and function of streets and spaces around them. Engineers and architects, when designing a new facility, will need to re-think the whole mobility / access system and what we need to facilitate and accommodate a future mobility access system  - and the current system too.

While all these ideas are exciting in theory, how will we actually get there?  How will we be designing and engineering infrastructure now to accommodate for these inevitable changes?  I touch on possible answers here.