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We must ensure that CAVs develop in a way that fits goals for inclusion, place-making, health, the economy and the environment

 
Driverless cars: What is to stop big tech from using their familiar genius for the ‘innovative’ and ‘disruptive’ tactic of burning cash in the often vain hope that it will ultimately lead to a monopoly position?

 
Reading the reams of reports on the subject, you could be forgiven for thinking that a future in which fully connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are ubiquitous on our city streets is a done deal. Sometimes that future city is a utopian dream of sharing and safety, replete with relaxed pedestrians and cyclists enjoying the green spaces and café-culture that CAVs have released. Other times it is a dystopian nightmare, with masses of individualised pods filling the streets and even the sky with congestion. Either way, buses rarely feature in the artists’ impressions.

However, the strikingly polarised dreams and nightmares portrayed in the literature  are just that – the product of a certain degree of imagination. Nobody can say exactly how far and fast CAVs will evolve and with what consequences. This doesn’t stop most of the literature on CAVs focussing on what we should do when we reach an, as yet, hypothetical end state of full autonomy. There’s a lot less focus on what will be a messy, lengthy and uneven series of transitions which may, or may not, end in full autonomy.

This is strange as one of the few certainties is that we are already on a CAVs trajectory. Vehicles with autonomous and connected features are already among us. Features like smartphone integration, lane assist, cruise control and sat nav are commonplace, and as the technology develops, benefits are being felt on the ground.

Transport for London’s Bus Safety Standard, launched in 2018, includes features such as automated emergency braking and Intelligent Speed Assistance (which helps the driver keep to the speed limit).

The eCall system is another example. Fitted as standard to new cars since 2018, it automatically contacts the emergency services if a car’s airbags deploy, using GPS to provide locational information. The system has been shown to reduce emergency response times by up to 60% in built-up areas.

Big auto companies could be your most precise forecaster of rainfall. Why? Because they know when the windscreen wipers are turned on.

None of this has the distant shimmering sci-fi thrill of a potential ‘pod world’ future. But the enormous potential of these kinds of transitional tech applications should not be overlooked. Not least of all for the systematic deepening and widening of London’s more tech and data-driven approach to bus safety compared to the rest of the UK.

There’s a danger that a deregulated approach to shared pods risks the potential hollowing-out of bus services in particular.

Many of the more utopian visions of a fully automatic future have vehicle sharing at their heart. Private car ownership will be unnecessary as a shared pod-like vehicle can be summoned when you need one. Of course we already have shared transport which people feel more comfortable with – it’s called public transport. And there’s a danger that a deregulated approach to shared pods risks the potential hollowing-out of bus services in particular.

What is to stop big tech from using their familiar genius for the ‘innovative’ and ‘disruptive’ tactic of burning cash in the often vain hope that it will ultimately lead to a monopoly position, this time with extremely cheap sharable autonomous vehicles in order to undermine conventional bus services.

Not the Law Commission it seems. You may not be as keen as we are on writing consultation responses so you may be blissfully unaware that they are beavering away on behalf of government to set out a legal framework for ‘pod world’. The Law Commission’s work so far envisages a world where there can be controls on numbers of conventional buses and taxis (which transport authorities can currently exercise through existing powers) but not for smaller shared autonomous vehicles (autonomous taxis in effect).

This would clearly disadvantage the bus against nimble, cash burning autonomous taxi-style operations who could run as many vehicles they like at what price they like in competition with buses. Such a scenario could lead to buses becoming a marginalised choice of last resort with a legislative framework designed not on the basis of what makes most sense overall for city regions and their transport networks, but instead risks privileging technology for technology’s sake. And one that risks being a potential trojan horse for the re-centralising of transport policy making and the deregulation of transport delivery.

Whilst much of the CAVs debate focuses on the vehicles, there’s rather less focus on the roads they will run on. It feels a bit like inventing the Rocket steam locomotive without thinking about the tracks it will run on. Yet it seems highly likely that the more autonomous the CAV, the higher the standard of road maintenance will be required.

For example, the current breed of lumbering autonomous pods can be easily confused by anything from a stray tree branch to a carelessly placed sticker on a road sign. Maintaining a road to the standards that a picky computer demands rather than a grumbling motorist has considerable implications for council budgets, already stretched beyond their means to address what is a sizeable road maintenance backlog.

And then there’s the ‘digital deficit’. At present, less than 20% of UK roads have full 4G coverage. Some 4,600 miles of roads do not even have 2G coverage. Digital ‘not spots’ will have to be addressed if more autonomous CAVs are to function to their full capacity.

And if they are able to do so, there is the question of how to manage and make the most of the huge volumes of data that they will generate. Not so simple when even some of the largest urban authorities do not have dedicated lead officers on new mobility options (like CAVs).

Our new report – Automatic for the people? Issues and options for transport authorities on connected and autonomous vehicles – calls upon the government to take action to support city regions as they seek to navigate a continually shifting new mobility landscape.

City regions would benefit from the provision of guidance from the government on how to manage a prolonged transition period towards CAVs. A legal and regulatory framework which allows them to proactively plan and respond with agility to CAVs and other new technologies is also essential. Such a framework should give them powers to innovate (to ‘sandbox’ new CAV technologies) whilst at the same time giving them the powers to balance consumer and public interest – for example, in clamping down on the flooding of local transport markets with excessive vehicles.

It should also be a legal framework which allows transport authorities to treat conventional public transport, and new mobility options even handedly rather than privileging the excitingly novel over the boringly familiar. Sometimes things are boringly familiar because it turns out they are the best solution.

We also need a research programme for CAVs which takes a broad view of the impacts for people and places, on roads and vehicles, and for both private vehicles and those that provide a public service.

We also need a research programme for CAVs which takes a broad view of the impacts for people and places, on roads and vehicles, and for both private vehicles and those that provide a public service.

Transport authorities also need long-term funding certainty to give them a secure foundation for strategic thinking, and for ensuring they can attract and retain the people and skills they need.

Most of all, transport authorities need to take their rightful place at the top table, with their voices heard alongside national policy-makers and CAV developers. Seat taken, they can ensure that CAVs develop in a way that fits wider goals for inclusion, place-making, health, the economy and the environment. However far and fast the CAVs trajectory takes us, that’s the best way to ensure that CAVS truly are ‘automatic for the people’.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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