Why cities should engage with autonomous driving

This piece was originally published on ICLEI’s blog CityTalk and is being republished with permission from ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

By Monika Zimmermann, Deputy Secretary General, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and Michael Glotz-Richter, Senior Project Manager “Sustainable Mobility”, City of Bremen, Germany

The content of this article reflects the personal opinions of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

On 7 and 8 June 2017, the City of Kaohsiung hosted the iCity, iCare Forum to discuss policy design for smart and autonomous transportation systems. At the Forum, the French autonomous bus company Easymile presented their autonomous minibus, which took Mayor Chen of Kaohsiung on the first autonomous test ride conducted on an open road in the city. The Forum took place as the city prepares for the EcoMobility World Festival and Congressin Kaohsiung in October 2017. These events will bring together practitioners and experts from cities and organizations to discuss the future of urban mobility. Autonomous driving and shared mobility are among the key themes of the Congress.

This first autonomous vehicle test ride in Kaohsiung just before the 3rd EcoMobility World Festival is a good moment to reflect on the ongoing technological development towards automated and autonomous transport. Both technological and societal changes are already reshaping our mobility paradigms and substantial changes will continue over the coming decades.

We strongly recommend that cities get curious, collect information on emerging autonomous technologies and their impacts, and learn from those municipal peers who are observing the development of autonomous vehicles and are already engaging in this important debate. We also recommend caution. The myth that autonomous driving would directly solve urban transport problems is not true and not all potential impacts of autonomous transport are welcome.  Local governments need to involve themselves to develop opportunities for sustainable urban mobility and mitigate risks.

Autonomous driving technologies are sneaking in. Today, many driving assistance systems are already built into modern cars. A whole range of such systems actively steer, accelerate or brake, providing collision warning, pedestrian recognition and automated parking. These new technologies aim to increase convenience for drivers as well as road safety.

In addition to technological developments, there are parallel societal changes that together have a huge potential to impact the development of new mobility paradigms.

Autonomous driving as a new technology and its related impacts are praised for creating new opportunities for cities.

Here are the arguments we hear:

Autonomous vehicles can help to reclaim urban spaces. Successfully reducing cars on the road by making use of shared autonomous vehicles would allow cities to reorganize streets and to reclaim urban spaces currently being used for parking.  Thus, new opportunities arise for converting street space into living space, while avoiding the huge costs of providing car parking.

Autonomous vehicles allow for new sharing models. Car-sharing is increasingly common. Technological tools such as smart phones allow for innovative platforms that attract new business models using shared vehicles.

With the advent of autonomous vehicles, car-sharing has the potential to become even more convenient than private car ownership at just a fraction of the cost. The motto is: Use it, don’t own it.

Autonomous vehicles will lead to fewer cars on the street. Urban transport modelling shows that about 10 percent of today’s vehicle fleet if turned into a car sharing model would be sufficient to accommodate the motorized transport needs of urban populations. New types of vehicles and autonomous fleets, which are more easily accessible as compared to conventional car-sharing systems, could accelerate the trend towards sharing, allowing cities’ transport models to move away from (shared) fleet services instead of private car ownership.

Autonomous vehicles are compatible with other modes of transport. High capacity collective transport systems, like metro, light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) can maintain their relevance.

If public transport companies are innovative, open and fast, they can open new markets and provide new flexible services utilizing autonomous vehicles integrated with existing public transport options.

Autonomous cars can help reduce fossil fuel consumption. This argument assumes that a new generation of autonomous vehicles will be electric.  Additionally, cars will be able to organize their routes according to battery status and will drive automatically to recharging stations. Provided the electricity comes from renewable energy sources, CO2 emissions and air pollution would be reduced.

Autonomous cars improve road safety. Currently, more than 90 percent of road accidents are due to human error and behaviors (such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or speeding), a risk that could be reduced through autonomous driving.

In short, autonomous driving is described as being a brilliant solution to many urban transportation challenges.

Autonomous driving technologies include risks and not all arguments in their favor are right.

This is what we see as the reality:

Autonomous cars may drastically increase transport volumes.

Fully autonomous cars could function as electronically connected “driverless taxis”, easy to call and use and cheap in their use. In addition, the so-called re-bound effect bears the risk of taking away the advantages of more efficient transport operation with electronically connected cars. These are only some of the reasons that could lead to an increase in transport volumes.

We see the following four factors as main risks which could very likely lead to an increase in mileage travelled instead of a decrease:

  • Modal shift towards autonomous cars: As the “driverless taxi” offers door-to-door transport without today’s pain of finding a parking spot, such ultimate convenience may lead to a shift from sustainable modes of public transport, walking and cycling to driving.
  • New user groups: Using an autonomous car will be as easy as using an elevator today. No driving license is required. You just have to give the destination and identify your payment system. This could be more inclusive and offer independence for instance to elderly people, which is a positive benefit. However, it may result in substantially more trips by new users and by autonomous cars themselves, for instance if families send their kids to school or their cars to the bakery.
  • Travel time is no longer “wasted time”: Today’s transport modelling builds on an average constant travel time which people are ready to invest. With no need to concentrate on road traffic, the user of an autonomous vehicle can enjoy entertainment, rest or work. This new disconnect between travel distance and travel time easily leads to accepting longer distances travelled by car.
  • Convenience has impacts: Reducing the inconvenience of travel time can ultimately cause further urban sprawl as it becomes more appealing for people to move out of (inner) cities, e.g. to rural areas and remote places. In the following, kilometers driven to reach work, education or leisure go up and city boundaries further blur.  Thus, the principles of compact cities and regional planning goals are heavily endangered.

Autonomous driving may lead to more separated urban roads. Autonomous cars are programmed to drive defensively, stopping or slowing down for all “obstacles” like crossing pedestrians. While this is helpful to make urban streets safer and more livable, opposition to this “traffic calming” might come from interests for high speeds on major urban roads.

Whereas some technicians call for fencing such major roads to clearly separate sidewalks from driving space to prevent pedestrian crossing, urbanists fear such an approach and look for more comprehensive solutions.  Only solutions that aim to keep driving speeds low and use instruments such as financial incentives to limit cars on the street can avoid further physical and social separation of cities. Fenced urban streets cannot be a goal of sustainable urban development.

Fenced urban streets, one of the possible cpmsequences of autonomous cars (Photo by Michael Glotz-Richter)

Autonomous vehicles pose risks to privacy and cyber security. The use of autonomous vehicles will generate a huge amount of data. Who will own this big data and what are the consequences of the continual monitoring and documentation of each and every vehicle and its moves?  And, as cyber-attacks become more frequent, can cyber security be ensured? How can the misuse of autonomous vehicles as weapons be avoided?

The transition is complex. We are already in the middle of a transition. An increasing number of new cars are prepared for assisted or partially automated operation, leading to key operational questions:

  • How much of the current traffic regulations will remain intact? Will the vehicles be programmed to drive defensively and follow all existing rules including speed limits, or will they be able to speed up in automated mode? One concerning instance is the story of a Tesla driver who crossed the US in automated mode in record time, apparently not having kept given speed limits.
  • Will the transition towards automated vehicles be accelerated due to the potential benefits for freight logistics? Automated transport of goods (long-distance road-based freight transport) offers the greatest economic gain allowing road haulage operators to reduce expenses. Based on this economic argument, the transition to automated freight transport might come more quickly in many countries. In addition, the complexity for automated transport on dual carriage highways is much lower than in urban areas. What happens, however, if such automated cargo vehicles leave the motorways and enter rural and urban areas? Is it expected that these areas must adjust to autonomous driving as they are currently forced to adjust to the presence of 25+ meter long mega-liners?

Policy makers and planners need to prepare themselves.

Autonomous technologies are developing faster than anticipated. Meanwhile, urban and transport planners are not yet prepared to deal with them. City planners lack information on impacts as well as strategies to strengthen positive aspects while mitigating unwelcome effects. No national legislation or planning document that we are aware of currently requires local and regional governments to take autonomous vehicles into account when establishing plans or deciding on investments.

Local and regional governments must engage in the debatePolicy choices must be taken to ensure that this new technology is developed to help shape future urban transportation systems that are safe, low carbon, efficient, healthy and inclusive.

Autonomous driving poses risks but also has great potential to change urban mobility patterns. The risks must be analyzed to be avoided and mitigated while the opportunities must be identified and realized.

Governments must be in control of these new technologies, and not simply accept them unquestioned.