Driverless public transport will change our approach to city planning – and living

December 22, 2014 by Stephen Potter, The Conversation
“You know, this retro-futurist styling is getting tiresome. Why can’t we look like the Jetsons?” Credit: America's Power Companies/Plan59

Just a couple of years ago, driverless cars were viewed as little more than a geekish techno-fantasy. But the entry of tech behemoth Google has produced an autonomous car that is now very close to entering the market.

Test-running on streets in the US has been underway for some time and they will be street legal in the UK from the start of 2015. To start this process rolling, a series of small-scale UK city trials has been recently announced.

Greenwich in London will have an autonomous tourist passenger shuttle, and autonomous valet parking for specially adapted cars. Milton Keynes and Coventry will host the UK Autodrive programme, and the Venturer consortium in Bristol will examine the effects of autonomous cars on congestion and road-traffic safety.

In Milton Keynes, small electric autonomous pods known as LUTZ Pathfinder will start running in the spring. Like an autonomous two-seater taxi, they will provide short-distance links between the station and destinations in the city centre running on cycleways and footpaths, mixing with pedestrians and cyclists. The project links to the wider Milton Keynes Future Cities Programme and Open University-led MK:Smart project.

MK:Smart, jointly funded between 12 partners and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is exploring the use of big data systems to develop innovative ways of managing water, energy and transport. Part of MK:Smart is to adopt a strategic view on where data-driven innovations might be plugged into the local economy, helping people and the city's development as a whole.

Tearing up the transport map

Google’s driverless car developments have driven forward the industry. Credit: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

Adopting autonomous vehicles could have a big impact on the way transport is designed and planned for in towns and cities. The project in Bristol is right to be examining how this will play out regarding safety and sustainability, but I would argue that the effects of driverless vehicles on transport planning will be fundamental.

If a city has system of booked using apps taking people door-to-door, 24-hours a day, where does that leave taxis and minicabs? With no driver the running costs would be low, pushing fares down towards those of a bus. If the mere use of the Uber app is causing mass protests and legal challenges, wait until a technology arrives that could out-compete taxis alltogether!

Equally, where does this leave mass transit like buses, tram or metro? The system architecture of bus service: large vehicles, operating to a timetable on fixed-corridor routes where passengers can board from specified stops – hasn't changed since the days when they were pulled by horses.

Autonomous cabs on the other hand have an entirely different system architecture. The vehicles are small, and the destination is set by the passenger, rather than tied to specific routes. It's a totally different sort of public-transport design. Battery-electric pods wait for customers at local ranks (recharging there) and when one pod is called to an address, another automatically replaces it to await the next customer.

Some small-scale tests are already underway – for example autonomous pods run on segregated tracks operate between Heathrow Terminal 5 and its car park stations. But because rapid progress in computer routines is allowing the vehicles to operate in ordinary traffic, there is potential for a more integrated approach and one that can provide a viable alternative to the private car in suburban areas. In terms of sustainability and cutting pollutants in cities, this system-level impact is possibly the most important aspect.

Transport designed for passengers

Transport policy has tended to view the present model of public transport as fixed for eternity and remains ingrained in the approach taken towards improving public transport for the future. This means requiring people to arrange their lives around the service design of a transport system, rather than designing the transport system to suit people's needs.

This difference in system design is the potentially transformative impact of autonomous public transport using small vehicles – passengers can travel directly, whenever they want, 24/7, to exactly where they want to be – including to many places and at times existing services cannot provide.

Realising the possibility of this fundamental change could turn transport and urban planning on its head. Autonomous vehicles are likely to be used very differently from the vehicles of today – replacing existing transport businesses and creating new ones. It is a design that could yield substantial environmental and social benefits. But the gritty details and inevitable politics have only just begun – and there is everything to play for in shaping our of the future.

Explore further: U.K. town to deploy driverless pods to replace busses

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9 comments

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gkam
3 / 5 (2) Dec 22, 2014
This can be huge. There are many folk for whom owning a car is unrealistic or undesirable, and availability of autonomous vehicles is a boon to them. Some cannot drive, and are disadvantaged without a license and vehicle.
HeyBoas
4 / 5 (1) Dec 22, 2014
I feel autonomous vehicles will have to go through leaps in bounds to sway the publics views. It only takes one crash to ruin it for everyone who would benefit greatly.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 22, 2014
I feel autonomous vehicles will have to go through leaps in bounds to sway the publics views. It only takes one crash to ruin it for everyone who would benefit greatly.
This is what your TV reporters and politicians want you to believe as they are the ones who benefit most from contention. What will be more telling is the gradual but significant reduction in the frequency and severity of accidents. This will be hard for them to conceal.

How many superbus accidents have there been? Lots.
Egleton
5 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2014
Drivers licences are our ID proof. Does this mean that we will have to get some other if we no longer drive?
And what about motorbikes and secret midnight assignations? Anyone riding around on a bicycle at midnight will be suspicious.
There are all sorts of unintended consequences.
Lord_jag
3 / 5 (2) Dec 23, 2014
Drivers licences are our ID proof. Does this mean that we will have to get some other if we no longer drive?

Most license issuing agencies have an ID card that looks almost exactly like a drivers license but doesn't allow you to drive.

Millions of people in major cities find no need for a car, but they still have ID.
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2014
Drivers licences are our ID proof. Does this mean that we will have to get some other if we no longer drive?


Rest assured that if they do go out of style, then State governments or the Federal government will QUICKLY tie some other essential service to a picture ID :)

Lord_jag
1 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2014
I see the changes coming as optional for the first while. Something like they had on "I Robot" (Will Smith) I think they had some of the same ideas in "Demolition man"

When you get out on the highway you can opt to hand control over to the robot. At any time it will pass control back to you.

The changes will happen when some company designs a mini-taxi service that holds 1-2 people and is completely autonomous for a price that taxi's cannot compete with.

You could summon it with a phone call and it could take you anywhere for a fraction of the cost of a taxi. It could even be 100% electric, plug itself into charging banks and only take the trip if it has enough charge to do the job.

Pretty much just a license to print money right there.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 23, 2014
When you get out on the highway you can opt to hand control over to the robot. At any time it will pass control back to you
Driverless cars will be able to drive at high speeds within a few feet of each other. They will all be communicating and will be able to react simultaneously by braking, accelerating, turning, leaving and joining traffic. Each will know the others destination and will plan their actions accordingly.

The picture above is misleading in a number of ways. It was made back when slot cars were popular.

In such conditions humans will not be allowed to drive themselves. They simply won't be capable of it.
teslaberry
not rated yet Dec 25, 2014
the next industrial revolution will be this technology. and it will play out just as cars did, first taking decades to roll out in the first world and then catching up even faster in the developing world, who will leapfrog the first 5 generations that the first world went through and just go straight to the perfect and cheap to produce mass emerging market version.

this will be a centuries long technology that fundmantally changes humanity and city layouts. passenger mass transport will be made obsolete, as mass individual transport is simply cheaper and more efficient. thing about the many railyards and real estate acres that will be freed up .

bus stations; gone. busses gone.

this won't happen in one or two decades but slowly. when the mapping , bandwidth and AI are all perfect, it will mean parking in congested urban centers simply ceases to exist as all useable space is utilized and all parking is required to be placed outside congested areas, where robots can drive.

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