Autonomous mobility is just around the corner. Are Europe’s cities ready?
by Giel Mertens, Sami Angsthelm & Rolf Bastiaanssen
For the past century, cars have dominated cities, shaping the streets and changing how urban areas were designed. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to reshape cities once more, freeing them from the many car-centric assumptions that previously dictated where citizens and organisations would be located. What’s more, AVs could solve many issues in urban areas; from improving transport safety and social inclusion to reducing congestion and carbon emissions.
With 35 demonstrators in Europe alone, it is clear that public authorities are already gradually becoming familiar with the technology and what it means in terms of regulation, implementation and public acceptance. However, autonomous mobility (AM) is yet to feature in many of the current multi-modal systems or urban planning strategies, looking at how different AM scenarios relate to specific sustainability goals.
The vehicles themselves are just the beginning.
It is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. For society to fully benefit, autonomous vehicles will need to be shared and electric. This isn’t just about ensuring that the new technology is safely deployed; it must also be successfully integrated. For instance, Gothenburg is the first-ever city to officially incorporate AVs into its urban planning – exploring the future need for parking facilities, accessibility, enhanced road safety, and implications for the use of public space.
Drive Sweden's vision for a city reshaped by autonomous vehicles
This is the only way to ensure that autonomous mobility can deliver the innovated solutions needed, making the shift to the more convenient MaaS model a permanent one.
What’s holding public authorities back?
Although AM technology is rapidly evolving and entering the market for commercial use, most European cities are still stuck in the early phase of understanding AM’s possible implications and considering the first potential use cases, forsaking dozens of other opportunities to explore potential solutions. So far, the knowledge and experience of local authorities is rather fragmented and not easily accessible within their current networks. A structural lack of financial capacity also constrains the adoption of AVs within the urban environment.
On top of that, studies on secondary impacts of autonomous vehicles (e.g land use, urban design, real estate, etc.) are still in the very early stages, with only a handful of organisations working on this topic worldwide; a pioneering example being Professor Nico Larco’s work at UrbanismNext. These studies need real-life pilots to fully illustrate their practical implications.
The first step is to identify and associate the opportunities provided by autonomous mobility with challenges faced by public authorities, resulting in developing a clear vision on how innovative mobility can help cities and regions re-think their strategies. To support this process, different roundtables need to be organised, gathering various stakeholders and experts from across Europe and beyond to explore the potential of AVs.
The next step is to experiment with the available technology, starting with a feasibility analysis to develop an AV pilot. This is how we better understand the required process for implementation, developing knowledge to overcome the barriers and issues encountered. It’s a way to validate the expected results or understand the causes behind instances of under-performance and failure. Whether the experiment is successful or not, the results are always valuable for public authorities!
In the end, public authorities need to develop and validate a mid-term strategy for the future integration of AV experiments and the necessary studies in current transportation. The main objectives are to develop a business plan for local authorities to implement an AV fleet, and gradually establish the infrastructure and data system that can support the introduction of such innovative mobility.
- ADAS – Advanced driver-assistance systems are additional electronic systems in vehicles that support the driver in specific situations. From automating the vehicle’s lighting to come on in the dark and providing adaptive cruise control to allow hands-free voice-activated smartphone connection, there are already many forms of ADAS.
- AV – an autonomous vehicle can navigate itself to a set destination and react to its environment with little to no human guidance.
- Last mile – the term used to describe the difficulty in getting people from a transportation hub, especially railway stations, bus depots, and ferry slips, to their final destination. When users have difficulty getting from their starting location to a transportation network, the scenario may alternatively be known as the first-mile problem.
- MaaS – Mobility-as-a-Service is the social shift towards shared mobility solutions from the current system of personally-owned modes of transportation.
- V2V -Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is a wireless network, that allows cars and other vehicles to send each other messages. The information relayed could include speed, location, direction of travel, braking, and loss of stability.
There are so many topics that still need to be addressed in terms of local regulation, both to end-users and technology providers, urbanism, long-term investments planning, etc.
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