The rise of technology and specifically autonomous vehicles has the potential to have wide positive impacts for the urban environment and liveability.
The traditional car was meant to give us independence, but has shackled our urban environment to breaking point. Could removing the human element be the silver bullet that society and the urban environment have waited for?
Imagine a world where children and the elderly were not dependent on family to travel, where like horse stables, garages became redundant – freeing up space for other uses, where parents would not have to watch their children like hawks crossing the street, 'drink-driving' becomes a forgotten phrase, car ownership costs disappears. Sitting in traffic congestion is only a memory and the city again becomes a fun vibrant environment full of people doing quirky and interesting things.
The end to the endless problems that have arisen from the car in the urban environment could come down to removing ourselves completely from behind the wheel, and the decision-making process altogether.
Fully automated vehicles will be a reality, it is only a question of how long it will take for mass population and government to take up the technology. Tesla, Mercedes, Nissan, Google, GM, and Audi are just some of the companies investing billions of dollars and resources into the technology. Nissan is currently teaming with MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Tokyo, with the combined research power equalling 80 years of research and development over a very short timeframe with the goal of having a “comprehensive autonomous drive vehicle” ready for market by 2020.
So to the benefits, and this is where political will may accelerate at a rapid pace.
Simply put, humans are hopeless drivers, and as a result our roads and highways are designed around human error, e.g. lanes are twice as wide as our cars, we have a three-second following expectation behind vehicles, corners are wider to compensate for error, and as a result we don’t utilise 95% of our highways.
Technology has far superior decision-making ability than humans, and as such roads and networks can be designed around true capability, not error. Imagine cars that could drive inches apart, forming road trains, can navigate routes more precisely, and which all in turn could increase highway capacity by 273%.
Future autonomous vehicles will operate on a pick-up, drop off basis, with vehicles freely roaming streets until called upon, effectively making car parks redundant which has large implications as some cities dedicate a third of their space just to car parking. With initiatives like ride sharing and the rise of the sharing economy and people increasingly able to work from home due to technology improvements, it is estimated that an 80% worldwide reduction in cars will likely occur when autonomous vehicles finally become the norm.
With autonomous vehicles able to make better, quicker decisions than humans, traffic safety is set to be vastly improved, and car related accidents are predicted to decrease by 90%. Increased mobility and independence for the disabled, elderly, and children is also seen as a big social benefit of fully autonomous vehicles.
Fiscally, automated vehicles are increasingly predicted to save economies billions in the long-term, and this is where I come back to my statement about political will. Congestion costs the Auckland economy $1.25 billion a year, and the cost of motor vehicle injuries $3.14 billion to the New Zealand economy. Increasing highway capacity by 273%, reducing car numbers by 80%, releasing up to a third of space in cities for development through removing the need for car parks, and reducing accidents by 90% not only acts as a huge financial incentive to accelerate uptake of autonomous vehicles, but also presents hope for the choke hold cars have on the urban environment.
The extent of urban land and associated funds that could be freed up by the introduction of autonomous vehicles could spark the beginning of an urban planning renaissance. The reallocation of land and funds away from car related infrastructure and instead towards increasing housing stock and density on newly freed up land, providing for increased public amenities, enhancing the quality of the urban environment, and replacing redundant old highways and car parks with cycle ways, green space, public art works, space for street performers, urban markets and street stalls could finally gift the city back to the quirky and interesting people who inhabit it.
Finally there is hope for the urban environment to break free and when it does, I can’t wait for the renaissance and opportunities that will be unleashed.