Time is precious and so having to commute by car is a huge waste of time for many people. I can therefore see the allure of a system where one can get on with catching up with the news, perhaps surfing social media or even having a snooze while you are transported to work (although people who use public transport are ahead of the game). Autonomous vehicles are seductive because because those who benefit their roll-out are very good at selling us faster, safer and more comfortable vehicles to use on the ever expanding road network.
Technology is becoming increasingly more sophisticated whereby vehicles can think quicker than us to avoid collisions, they can obey the speed limits and they don’t tailgate each other on the motorway. I guess that’s fine to a certain extent. However, what they cannot do is create more space on our streets and they potentially have serious implications for walking and cycling.
I recently experienced an autonomous minibus service in Luxembourg City; the City Shuttle . As a tourist it was certainly fun, although that it needs a safety attendant, it shows how far the technology still needs to go. It’s one thing having a vehicle operating on a motorway where there is already a high level of control over how people drive, but quite a different proposition moving along narrow streets where there are other drivers, people cycling and people wandering around taking in the sights. As it happens, the minibus did hesitate quite a lot and we didn’t get anywhere close to the local 30kph speed limit.
And here is the nub of the problem; how can autonomous vehicles and people safely interact in urban areas? On the one hand, if they are so cautious as to never get anywhere, then what is their point because people will soon realise that in fact they have power over the vehicles by stepping into the road or happily taking the lane on their cycles. However, to enable them to make progress, that has to mean keeping roads hostile to dissuade unpredictable humans from getting in the way and might also mean that we’ll see the guardrails coming back out, people having to cross the road at designated places and perhaps the importation of jaywalking laws to keep people at bay. Technology is great, but we should put people first and this means reducing our dependence on cars, not accelerating it.
Consultant, City Infinity, and Technical Manager, Sweco Ltd