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How autonomous vehicles will pave the way for pedestrianism

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/LifetimeStock)

It wasn’t too long ago when city centres were considered to be the least desirable places to live, filled with crumbling buildings, pollution and high crime rates. Twenty years later, cities have become the epicentre of people’s aspirations of leading a successful life and are now deemed among some of the most attractive places to live. What’s changed?

Today’s city centres are filled with innovative “Smart” apartment buildings that are catering to the demand for more co-living spaces. At street-level, these urban epicentres are crammed with cafes, bars, restaurants and gyms drawing young millennials to their services. City life and its amenities have increasingly attracted fast-growth businesses, young and affluent workers and visitors.

Throughout the 19th century, governments saw citizens migrate to urban areas, with numbers only beginning to dwindle in the late 20th century. City residents were left cramped, and claustrophobic which once again drove them to spacious suburbs on the outskirts.

The start of the 21st century has seen city centre populations double in size. In the US over 80 per cent of the population now live in urban areas, and the UK is not far behind with 70 per cent already living in towns and cities. There is no question that there has been a significant shift in how people want to live in the past twenty years. With the urbanist Smart City movement in full swing, city councils need to focus on urban mobility and ensure inhabitants can move around their cities seamlessly.

Introducing the autonomous vehicle revolution

In the last 30 years, we have witnessed not only urbanisation but also the rise of technology. New innovations are changing how people live by providing a level of intelligence and convenience that has never been experienced before.

City centres are densely populated, resulting in a surge in demand for improved mobility. People want to escape traffic and move around more freely, without the need for a car. It’s time to give the cities back to be people, and Autonomous Vehicles (AV) will be at the forefront of reducing traffic and improving mobility in urban environments.

Car manufacturers are currently spending billions of dollars leveraging technology to develop driverless cars.  Their vision for self-driving vehicles may eventually be the solution for seamless mobility, but are fleets of ’robo-taxis’ really the immediate answer for improved urban mobility?

Probably not.

While the prospect of robo-taxis seems compelling, there is still more work to be done. As businesses try to react to every possible use case, recent reports have indicated that driverless cars still need human intervention, on average, every 14 miles. According to some media reports, we won’t see a fully-functioning driverless car for another 30 years and, others suggest they may never happen at all.

However, there is a clear opportunity for other types of AVs, such as self-driving shuttles or delivery platforms to transform mobility in low-speed environments. Leveraging the latest innovations such as 3D-mapping, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) densely populated areas like city centres, airports, theme parks and resorts can immediately benefit from these low-speed solutions.

Moving freely in city centres

It’s no secret getting around in cities can be inconvenient and for many, dangerous. The UK has seen pedestrian deaths reach an all-time high due to motor accidents. The US is also suffering from increased pedestrian deaths, with over 6,200 fatalities in 2018, thought to be a result of more distracted drivers. Removing cars from city centres can immediately help lower those devastating figures. This will allow more freedom for pedestrians, bicycles and skateboards.

However, for people and goods needing a transport solution, low-speed AV platforms have been developed with exactly this type of environment in mind. For example, autonomous shuttles have been designed to operate safely around pedestrians as well as in low-speed mixed traffic or at higher speeds on dedicated lanes. This technology can enable expansion of car-free zones while providing an option for citizens who are less able to walk or prefer a more convenient mode of transport.

Improving the environment with AVs

One of the main flaws in urbanisation is the negative impact it has on air quality, with a typical car omitting over 190 grams of carbon dioxide (Co2) per kilometre of travel. Many cities have already taken steps to improve air quality, the UK is an example of this, where Co2 emissions have continued to fall consecutively for the last 6 years. However, the city of London still omits an estimated 361M tonnes of Co2. While being lower than other major cities in the world, such as in China (188B tonnes) and the US (5.14B tonnes), there is still room for improvement.

Utilising electric powered AVs to expand car-free zones will, in turn, improve air quality and the overall urban environment.  Another benefit of expanding city centre car-free zones is that congested roads and car parks can be transformed into green space, pedestrian areas and bike lanes.

Commercial benefits to low-speed AVs

From a business perspective, low-speed AVs present a massive opportunity to utilise land and property more efficiently.  On-demand 24/7 autonomous shuttles allow city centres or university campuses to move car-parks to the perimeter and free up valuable real estate. Overall passenger experiences can be enhanced by offering autonomous rides to car parks, taxi drop-offs or the nearest train station.

Over short distances, low-speed self-driving shuttles provide faster and more flexible services for passengers. Without the need for drivers or costly infrastructures, this type of vehicle can enable a 24-hour service at a fraction of the price of traditional public transportation.

The future of mobility is “wonderfully boring”

Cities all over the world are looking for ways to become “Smart Cities” that attract more residents, businesses (that create jobs) and visitors. Expanding car-free zones in city centres and deploying pedestrian friendly autonomous mobility, will give the cities back to the people. This will not only free cities from pollution and traffic but give citizens more options to walk, ride bicycles and enjoy the urban environment.

The future of transport is likely to be shared, autonomous and electric.  But why wait for the future when low-speed AVs, that have been described as “wonderfully boring”, are ready today and can improve the quality of city life while providing citizens with seamless urban transportation.

Adrian Sussmann president, COAST (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/LifetimeStock

Adrian has over 25 years of business and management experience Apart from being president at COAST, Sussmann has represented some of the world's top race car drivers in Formula 1, Formula E and IndyCar.