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Driving force: Will driverless cars force a rethink of our cities?

Will driverless cars force a rethink of our cities?

John Glenday of architecture and planning magazine Urban Realm explores the extent to which driverless cars will force a rethink of our cities.

Technoheads have long dreamed of a future filled with jet packs and interplanetary travel, but while such things for now remain the stuff of science fiction, the relative mundanity of today’s world belies some impressive incremental, if not revolutionary, progress – not least in the fields of autonomous and driverless cars.

And as the UK government bends over backwards to fast-track prototype vehicles on Britain’s roads as part of efforts to ensure the country emerges as a global leader in the field, it leads to the question… are we witnessing the beginning of a revolution to transform our towns and cities in ways not seen since the emergence of the first automobiles at the turn of the last century? Are we potentially ushering in a wholly different relationship between people, vehicles and buildings?

Industry proponents argue that computerised transit is about far more than negating human error and inefficiencies. Indeed it’s about nothing less than creating a “learning system” that can “react intelligently to its environment,” according to Klaus Verweyen, Audi’s head of predevelopment of automated driving functions.

Should this futuristic vision come to pass, Verweyen foresees cities where space for parking could “shrink or be shifted to less attractive locations thanks to self-parking cars”.

Improved traffic flow due to intelligent cars, meanwhile, reduces the space requirement of the road network, the space that is freed up benefits people, and the quality of urban life improves, he explains.

“I believe that in the future, existing means of transportation will be further differentiated. Between cars, motorbikes, bicycles, public transit or the decision to travel on foot, there is space for new forms of getting around.

“These diverse forms of mobility will share the traffic space of the city. Borders can become blurred or even disappear completely, provided that traffic safety is ensured.”

Geoff Whitten, director of urban design at planning consultancy Turley, stresses a distinction between so-called smart motorways and smart cities, pointing out that the former will feature more capacious designs for longer distance travel, while smaller ‘pods’ will operate in urban environments where capacity is key.

“City dwellers will benefit from less congestion and visual clutter in the form of railings and signage, while suburbs will be also be enhanced as a place to live and the daily commute could be much more enjoyable using a controlled autonomous vehicle. Journey times will be more certain and safe,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced that such a technoutopia will be so benign. John Lord, founder of economic development and regeneration consultancy Yellow Book, points to the naive sense of optimism which led to the construction of motorways and bypasses throughout the 20th century – destroying many of the UK’s urban environments.

“Car ownership and mileage seem to have peaked in Britain, at least for the time being, but cars – and all the other road vehicles – have won the war and, without exception, all our great cities bear the scars.

“The techno-triumphalists, with their underdeveloped understanding of history and human behaviour, think all this can be spirited away in a few years. It can’t, because we’re locked into the old infrastructure and the old ways of doing things, and because the technology isn’t here yet.

“Indeed, it may be decades away – and, as always, we need to question the motives and aspirations of the people who own and stand to profit from it.”

Nevertheless, Lord predicts that before very long there will be a class of partial-autonomous vehicles on the road in which computers will drive more miles and carry out more routine manoeuvres than humans. But for the foreseeable future, people will need to be in attendance, intervening in emergencies and assuming control when the signals received by the car are too confusing and contradictory for it to cope.

“Road travel will be safer and the death toll will reduce but, on the rare occasions when we are called into action, inattention, a reluctance to countermand the computer and ring-rustiness will lead to some messy mistakes and a festival of litigation.”

Whether driverless cars prove as elusive as jet packs and interplanetary travel, and whether they are let loose into the wild years from now or decades hence, the direction of travel is clear – autonomous vehicles are coming, whether our cities are ready or not.


This piece first appeared in the 18 March issue of The Drum. To buy a copy or to start subscribing go to The Drum Store.

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