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Louise Jack

Journalist

The coming revolution in autonomous vehicles will not only change how people get to the places they want to go, but also what those places look like and what life is like in them.

Much of today’s urban environments are tailored for the gas-powered, personally owned automobile. Many cities predate the invention of the car by thousands of years and grew organically, perhaps as a center of trade, a walled place of protection, or grew up around a sacred, religious site of some kind. As we walk through a city’s streets, we walk through time, seeing for ourselves how the needs of previous generations were met. But even ancient cities are likely to be surrounded by suburbs built after the onset of the industrial revolution, with motor vehicles in mind.

A city’s rhythms and schedules are dictated by public transport systems, how public services are maintained and how businesses get their needs met. In other words, a great deal of how a person lives their life is influenced by the needs of the city. But what if it was the other way round? Imagine an environment in which it was people’s individual and collective needs that informed its rhythms.

Busy street crossing in Tokyo

How exactly the processes of transformation from gas to electric, from driven to driverless, and from discrete vehicle ownership to sharing and networking will occur will inevitably vary from city to city, from region to region. But, they’re coming; there can be little doubt of that.

A smart, efficient city will gather data from disparate sources including, 3D LIDAR mapping technology in autonomous vehicles and sensors installed in everything from buildings to all kinds of urban furniture – think trash cans, for example. Indoor sites will also be mapped and every ‘thing’ will have a location.

From above, a cityscape is illuminated

Of course, if simply ‘more information’ was the solution to all our woes then our kids would never eat candy, informed as they are about the damage it does to their teeth. And yet, there they are, jamming it into their mouths at every available opportunity. We need to unite different sources of information in a way that helps people live their lives as they want to, not necessarily how they ‘should’.

There will doubtless be many aspects of how lives will be impacted that we could not have predicted, but, aside from the expected near-elimination of traffic accident deaths, there are several at which we can already make an educated guess.

A map that lives

Autonomous vehicles incorporate technology that creates a constantly evolving 3D map. This data will be able to deliver four main services, which will be of benefit no matter how the process to autonomy happens e.g. a mix of autonomous and driven vehicles. Real time traffic information means people will be able to avoid congestion before they reach it; information about available parking spots means no more driving round in loops hoping for a space; responsive road signage with speed limits being updated as and when necessary tailoring flow to different sets of circumstances, eases problems; a real time understanding of hazards, such as breakdowns and difficult weather conditions = no more wondering if that is black ice.

No parking

An empty parking lot seen from above

We think of cars as travelling machines but they could more accurately be called parking machines. Most cars are stationary most of the time. A scenario in which autonomous vehicles are always moving, or deposited outside congested areas when not in use, presents the question of what cities do with all the car parks and spaces it no longer needs. It’s possible to envisage all kinds of potential uses for these areas and this will clearly vary depending on location. Sidewalks could become more spacious and better cycle routes created, for example.

Time on our hands

A man wearing a virtual reality headset is painting a picture

We’re used to our cars being private fiefdoms, primarily aimed at making driving comfortable but as we relinquish ownership to other players and the vehicles themselves do the driving, this creates an opportunity to reimagine what happens in vehicles. The possibilities are endless. It’s easy to envisage vehicles as entertainment platforms, perhaps incorporating VR and AR. And it’s not much of a stretch to imagine mobile gyms, perhaps instead of a gym membership people could subscribe to a fleet of on-demand, mobile workout stations. Maybe these are larger vehicles where people could travel and exercise together – like Soul Cycle but on a bus. Vehicles could be learning centers, gaming pods, retail outlets, and more.

Public conveniences

Much of the conversation around autonomous vehicles focuses on how individuals will make journeys but, actually, it is fleets of service vehicles that take up lots of space and create schedules to which people are required to adhere. Garbage trucks, delivery vans and other public services will be transformed by technology, making cities efficient and responsive to its inhabitants’ needs. To take just one potential example, instead of the waste disposal organizations telling people where and when to have their bins ready for collection, when their bins are full they will automatically alert robotic collectors to come and get them.

It’s fun and inspiring to imagine the possibilities this level of data collection and processing would allow but there will also be losses. The plight of truck and taxi drivers set to lose their livelihoods has been well discussed but what about traffic cops? If no one commits driving offences, what will they do? Perhaps they will be transferred to a new division that detects crime by using vehicle and city sensor data. There’s also a funding gap to be closed, traffic violation and parking fines are huge revenue streams and that money will need to be replaced.

Other challenges, such as how do you encourage use of public transport like subways and buses if autonomous vehicles are cheaper? The problem being, if everyone used on-demand, personal autonomous vehicles rather than buses and subways, then cities would be more congested than ever.

Train in motion is blurred, as a woman stands waiting

What the shift to autonomous, driverless vehicles will look like, in particular how vehicles will be owned, used and accessed is a topic of debate between some of the world’s most high-profile business leaders. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, for example, thinks we will continue to own cars but will share them by placing them on a network.

By contrast, John Zimmer, founder of on-demand service Lyft, thinks people will no longer own cars at all but instead use cars that are part of fleets, which could be owned by companies such as Lyft. Other possibilities include perhaps an automaker supplying a given city with vehicles for use by its residents and visitors. It is worth noting that Ford referred to itself as a “mobility company” in its 2017 Super Bowl Spot, and pointed to a suite of services beyond car ownership.

Woman looks out of tower window over city

As vehicles move towards autonomy, cities will simultaneously be deploying location-based technology, which will apply a digital layer over everything, allowing us to create huge improvements to all aspects of our lives. People will live in these smart connected cities, powered by information gathered from millions of sources, interpreted and delivered in real-time. Instead of people building their lives around the system, the system will build itself around them.

The question, “What kind of city do we really want?” should maybe more correctly be, “What kind of city do I really want?” And what I want may well be quite different to what you want. A connected, smart, efficient city means we can both have it.