07.12.2015 : Tom McKnight

Automated vehicles – The saviour of urban humanity?

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.

About the Author

Tom McKnight


Tom is a planner in Beca’s Wellington office who has a strong interest in the urban environment and improved liveability. He has been involved in the Christchurch Replacement District Plan and Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan development processes and various community consultation initiatives.

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Tom McKnight · 7/12/2015 4:11:02 p.m.
Hi Chris

I agree, but in terms of cost especially in my opinion, we should see this drop quite significantly in the years to come with the amount of investment and R&D that is currently going on in the market, and the fact that most car producers are in the process of producing their own autonomous vehicles.

By world standards NZ has a very well set-up regulatory system for the introduction of autonomous vehicles - but this still does require fine-tuning. 100% agree with your statement around trucks and freight being the first to uptake the technology, but for me the other one is also public transport. I see there being opportunities through putting autonomous buses in bus only lanes e.g. the northern bus way in Auckland, where there is a physical barrier between people and buses to get people used to the technology.

Tom McKnight · 7/12/2015 4:01:28 p.m.
Hi Gillian

Thanks for your comment! The Ignite article I wrote is a very condensed version of an earlier article I wrote on LinkedIn, you can view here https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/automated-vehicles-saviour-cities-tom-mcknight?trk=prof-post. This touches on why people are in cars and explains how land zoning and separating home from road has led to sprawl and a degraded urban environment.

In terms of who is going to operate them, this is likely to be private businesses who will be competing against each other in the market and from a personal perspective, what I have seen is big business and governments very committed to upgrading and fine tuning the technology to make them a far superior and economical option than owning a car.

I agree that there will still likely be crashes - but a 90% reduction will go a long way, and air travel is still considered the safest form overall of travel.

Chris Lambourne · 7/12/2015 3:19:15 p.m.
Autonomous vehicles (AV) appears to have been developed well enough for initial deployment, but it is cost, regulatory environment and cultural barriers that are now the impediments for deployment.

The first movers for commercial AV will be trucks: long haul trucks.
• Many long distance trucks already have started the trip to becoming AV. Automated breaking is a standard feature on trucks.
• Trucks are expensive, so the incremental cost of AV is proportionally low, so the $20,000 to $50,000 involved is in the 5% - 10% of the total cost of the vehicle. Whilst you could get AV mode on a new Tesla the type of person spending $150,000 - $200,000 on such a vehicle is not likely to want to use it.
• Have high utilisation compared to a household car that spends 95% of its life in park mode. So the payback is quicker.
• Are subject to tight regulation in terms of speed, load, drivers' hours, routes as well as company SOPs. An AV is (theoretically) better placed to maintain consistent application of a rules based environment.
• Volvo trucks, and others, are looking for a test bed

My opinion is that NZ offers some advantages in terms of insurance liability caps through ACC, business friendly government, generally good (but still variable) roading standard, fleet owners looking intensely for efficiency gains, trained support.

The question is how soon will AV vehicles be here? My guess is that if the regulatory hurdle could be passed then we would see AV trucks here within 6 – 12 months.

Gillian Somerville · 7/12/2015 2:00:28 p.m.
Interesting article, Tom but I don't see autonomous cars as the answer to congested roads - they still take up space and need roads or tracks to run on, they are only as good and reliable as the humans designing, building and programming them. Who is going to start them, stop them, maintain them and step in when they go wrong - and they inevitably do because no technical system is 100% fool-proof. You haven't touched on why people are in cars - people used to live and work in close proximity so walked or had shorter distances to travel or used trams (back when Auckland had a tram network). This isn't the case now so maybe the answer is to remove the need for people to drive by providing stable, local employment, shops, and schools - all the things we currently travel to. We are getting sucked in being told autonomous cars will make things safer. Aircraft have auto-pilots and they still crash!