What earth dweller is unfamiliar with a stop sign? Its signature eight sides and fire engine red colour have been ingrained like golden arches onto our collective subconscious for the past century. Those four octagon-encased letters spell out a powerful and ubiquitous message: best you obey, because you need me more than I need you.
But what if, in 20 years’ time, that sign means absolutely nothing to our children’s children? And why should it if our drivers have no need for instruction? Imagine a future where liquid energy is a wondrous idea and a driver’s license is ‘one of those things’ we hold on to as a family keepsake. Although the transition to fully-autonomous cars is still some years away, the self-driving revolution is thunderously on the go – and this reality is closer than you may think.
The multibillion-dollar price tag for servicing its antiquated infrastructure means that rail will never be the only solution for tomorrow’s cities. Roads will remain part of our future alongside other types of transport infrastructure. But, exactly what kind of transformation is required of our roads and how will they be operated to ensure they are the safest and most sustainable form of travel? What kind of new thinking and brave building must we embrace now to pave the way for the Great Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Overtaking? A mindset of ‘patching potholes’ is dangerous; we will pave fresh avenues of innovative thinking.
Two sides of the AV coin
Currently, the AV narrative is a hotbed for debate and speculation ‒ enshrouded in the kind of mystery that precedes the dawning of any good revolution. There’s a utopian view on the table, says UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, Susan Shaheen, that frames a driverless dominated world as a highly streamlined, integrated and human-centred urban order. Well-enforced government regulation ensures the ease and flow of traffic throughout city streets, with little congestion and no sound of angry honking motorists, thanks in part to forecasted reduced rates of car ownership, as people of the future are likely to drive cars through an on-demand model.
On the other hand, the dystopian view suggests the driverless car will only exacerbate environmental problems. A study says that if AV fleets are not electrified using renewable energy and shared, by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution could potentially increase by 50%. With more AVs on the road, there could be more congestion and production-based pollution. Should system glitches occur, it could set off massive travel disruptions and delays, not to mention a super cranky sitter of the tattered backseat.
The Safety Factor
London, August 17, 1896: Forty-four-year-old Bridget Driscoll stepped off the pavement and into the history books as the first person to be killed by a motor car. At the inquest, Coroner William Percy Morrison said he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.” Sadly those hopes have gone unrealised, with WHO reporting a global wake of over 60 million road deaths and 1.5 billion seriously injured since that fateful day 122 years ago. Although generally auto-related fatalities have declined since 1970 in western countries, still more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic accidents. As long as humans are at the wheel, road safety will remain a leaky bucket.
Automated vehicles, on the other hand, offer a very different narrative that will save lives. With a marginal rate of error (only one accident has been found to put Google’s AV at fault, after 1.5 million miles travelled), driverless cars could ideally close in those statistics once and for all. The problem, however, is even with the promising results of these experiments, people remain skeptical with not being in control and the AVs’ lack of the ability to make moral decisions. How will AVs assure the safety not only of its passengers, but also of the bystanders and pedestrians along the way, when mechanical failures and collisions occur? Who does it save the most?
Reassigning our infrastructure
Contributing to the naysayers’ views is the question of how. How are we going to get there? How is it even possible to facilitate this transition in such a way that, over the next decade or two, human and robot can successfully co-navigate the roads?
It’s evident that cities pose far more tricky challenges, given their diversity of interchanges, mixed-use traffic and buzzing human activity. With humans remaining in the mix and on the road, the error for margin is chasmic. And experts would also agree, AV software is still at an infant stage, when it comes to ensuring a fail-safe mechanism that can intuitively navigate through such a messy human landscape.
Says CityLab’s Benjamin Schneider on the matter, “As long as they share the road with pedestrians, bikes, and human-driven vehicles, self-driving cars will not be able to reach their full utility. The question is, what would cities have to sacrifice to unlock that utility?”
Cities like Atlanta and New York City have answered that question by proposing to repurpose and renovate old infrastructure into dedicated AV lanes. Called the NYC Loop, this design proposal converts and converges major cross streets into expressways that would then together form a loop to encircle Manhattan, with walkways above the circular highway. Over time, as more AVs join these roads, former corridors can be reimagined as recreational areas or bikeways.
Of course, the idea of overhead pedestrian pathways to facilitate mass flow is a red flag for city planning. And furthermore, the question looms, with the time saved, and convenience of self-driving cars just inspiring more AVs to join our roads; will it actually solve our congestion problems?
Meanwhile, Atlanta has to get around its own set of problems while rolling out their ‘smart corridor’ plans. In their case, it’s the local Georgia Tech students who have a propensity for jaywalking. For now, the proposed AV highway is still a road with intersections and stop signs, designated for automated buses, until the hurdle of unpredictable intersections can be overcome.
The issue is not a simple one when it comes to transforming our current infrastructure. Naturally, the solution is not to tear our cities down, but to work with what we have and repurpose flow and function. There are several perspectives to consider, and we’ll have to invite them all to the table as cities evolve.
We also need to consider taxation policy and legislation as an integrated part of our infrastructure. Many countries already do – in part with annual vehicle road tax based on carbon emissions, such as the United Kingdom and the European Union, and progressive nations like Norway go even further with zero tax on fully-electric new vehicle sales and 100% tax on new petrol and diesel sales. Given that by 2030, some European countries are set to outlaw the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, should we look at how policies such as tax incentives can change human behaviour and consumer decisions? Should we entice and legislate our way to a utopian world of clean, green, safer autonomy on our roads?
Building on blank pages
Other options are emerging as an exciting (and far easier) solution to the AV revolution. Companies and developers around the world are starting with bare ground and a clean slate.
Since the turn of the Millennium, hundreds of new cities ‒ urban mega-projects that come as fully master-planned, funded ‘cities in a box’ ‒ have been sprouting up around the world. Their advantage is their modernity, which keeps them untied to antiquated systems and agile to absorb the latest smart technology. They also have a good deal of autonomy, because they’re privately owned and void of all those reams of red tape.
Google has been building a mock city they call Castle, just 100 miles east of Silicon Valley, to test their self-driving cars. Developments such as Babcock Ranch in Florida are embracing renewable power and AVs as their new normal. Traditional car transport is restricted in Babcock Ranch, and there’s no virtually no resistance to this rule because the homeowners signed into this vision. There’s much room for design change, as technology evolves, and the ranch has been used to test dummy new good ideas like automated package delivery. And many other new cities are emerging as potential design solutions for the 21st century.
With the smart revolution underway and AVs an evident imperative in the new city narrative, private and public sectors need to seriously consider where and how they can leapfrog conventionality. The obvious, when stars align and funds flow unrestrained, is to start from scratch. But, most of our paving will be in repurposing what we already have, roads, taxation and legislation ‒ a steady case of trial and error, fail and repeat, as we enter a whole new paradigm.
Navigating this change, we’ll increasingly pull down our street signs; we’ll have no need for eye contact with the guy who gives directions. Perhaps our success won’t be measured so much by the state of our smart technology, but by the degree to which we still ‘own the roads’ and move around safely.
By Nial O’Brien, Global Service Leader, Roads at Aurecon