Autonomous vehicles at intersection; Autonomous vehicles at intersection;

Behind the hype around connected and autonomous vehicles

Behind the hype around connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) lays an inconvenient truth - that without appropriate market shaping they could lead to more congestion, less walking and public spaces become holding pens for ever circulating fleets.

Governments must take the lead in setting the policy parameters in which this revision of the private car is allowed to operate, particularly in city centres, to protect both the environment and the public funds sunk into public transport.

They must put the interests of the public, society and the economy ahead of the narrow sectional interests arising from the unprecedented levels of investment into CAVs, and at the very least maintain our existing amenity.  

And if governments are bold, they could create a far more equitable, safer and attractive urban environment.

But why must governments take the lead? What problems should they focus on preventing?

When markets operate unconstrained they typically either fail through unbridled competition (as we’ve seen recently in Sydney with hire bikes being abandoned on our streets and subsequent market withdrawal) or they push a huge cost onto the government and the economy to enable them to thrive (as we’ve seen with conventional cars over the past 50 years). 


But is the advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs) actually anything beyond a technology shift? Are the consequences likely to be significant?

That discussion should start with car share markets, previously known as hire cars. Uber and Lyft have caused major failures in public spaces, with London’s congestion cordon system challenged by the explosion of circulating hire cars, and New York City decrying the congestion impacts due to kerb space competition.


The UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that more than half of all trips by rideshare would not have happened if rideshare was not available, and that the other half would predominantly have been made by walking or public transit. As Phil Carter of Arup postulates, Uber could kill the bus. And health gains made by increased active transport could evaporate. 

If free active transport, or low-cost transit, is being replaced by more expensive hire cars, and that still induces demand, imagine what might happen to demand on our road networks when prices plunge as labour costs are eliminated and vehicle operating costs plummet in an electric, shared and autonomous vehicle world.

What could happen?

It could evolve into an environment of unconstrained competition for customers, AVs circulating to increase the probability of picking up a ride, trying to find kerb space in demand centres. 

Looking back, this was why we created taxi ranks and constrained the ‘hail and ride’ points in city centres that disrupted traffic flow and increased unpredictable lane changing and accidents. 

It could evolve with the communications technology so that users and operators hammer government for more access in real time, with individuals empowered to demand instant access, further devaluing the community benefit of the shared ride.

It could change how we use power grids, pulling on peak power load to recharge electric vehicles straight after the peak commute, coinciding with city centre peak surges as offices fire into life. 

In the Sydney centre those 500,000 people arriving in groups of 100 on buses and 1800 on trains every minute might arrive individually in a “pod”, also known as a car – albeit without driver. Would the demand for access push for ever more road infrastructure?

And imagine what has to be done with transit to prevent that. What would the customer offer have to be if total freedom to choose, regardless of external costs imposed, was allowed to occur?

Pedestrians photographed from the shoulders down crossing at a pedestrian crossing Pedestrians photographed from the shoulders down crossing at a pedestrian crossing

Once the question of safety is added, it gets far more difficult.

AVs cannot defy the laws of physics, so they can never provide the oft cited zero road toll outcome, unless we separate people and vehicles by barriers.  

Pedestrians who step in front of vehicles without warning are highly likely to be severely injured or killed. 

We take this as part of the cost of mobility today, but with changes to ownership models and with automated decision making, can we continue in the same manner?  Will the promise of mass reduction in severe trauma lead to the acceptance of driverless vehicles? And then, acceptance of the reality that they can only work if separated totally from pedestrians?

Can we risk not doing the work to fully understand the extraordinary benefits such a change in technology can bring, without fully exploring what the limitations in application should be for the broader benefit?

We have the opportunity to completely rethink what is important in our cities and suburbs and to realise a far better balance for people of accessibility, mobility, safety and place.

A critical role for government is, therefore, to guide the market on what will be acceptable, thus containing development costs, while ensuring the public gets the best value – a balance between the best public outcome and the cost to achieve it. ”

Terry Lee-Williams Strategic Transport Adviser

Already Arup is thinking critically about place and how to adapt to different demands that such technologies might bring. Our FlexKerbs initiative is being funded by the UK’s Infrastructure Commission for development and testing, to see if we can realise benefits of automated vehicles while maintaining public amenity and safety.

If we think about regulation as the ability to appropriately allocate risk while incentivising good outcomes, rather than applying punitive measures for transgressions, it allows us to think very positively about a high-mobility future with far less downside.  

And if we think of all roads as the space between buildings held in public trust by the government for the public, and thus responsible for sharing it equitably, it gives us a solid starting point.

As Adie Tomer wrote for Brookings, “It’s not hyperbole to say every single rule and penalty related to transportation and street design could be upended within the next few decades.”

Then, they should move through to the more mechanistic issues arising from the developing technology including power supply, then management of the road space and rights to operate.

Arup’s Global Knowledge and Foresight Leader, Chris Luebkeman, is fond of quoting the deputy lord mayor of Paris, who is emphatic that: “If you don’t design the rules of the game before 2020 it is too late.” And with the speed of development and investment occurring, there is some truth to that, though I suspect that we have enough time to have a proper conversation about what we value.

Designing those rules does need to focus on what place we want to live in, how we value the people within that place over the technology that operates within it and how we might balance the pricing and funding challenges that undoing mass transit would bring to cities, but which might make suburbs much more accessible.

It is time to move the debate from the technology, which is now a given over time, and into terms people can understand so that we can begin to shape a better world, not surrender to a more congested and constrained one.