Image of traffic

As governments and city administrations grant permission to test automated and connected vehicles on urban roads, a future of self-driving cars looks increasingly likely. What impact might it have on human behaviour? 

Earlier this week, I attended a seminar by Dr Chandra R Batt organised by Professor Benjamin Heydecker at the Centre for Transport Studies, University College London (UCL). Dr Batt was visiting from the Centre of Transportation Research at the University of Texas in Austin. The subject of the seminar was ‘Connected Cars and Automated Cars: What they can and may do to our way of life’. The following is a summary of what was a fascinating talk.

First, an explanation of the difference between automated and connected:

Automated vehicles Connected vehicles
Refers to self-driving vehicles. Data is not shared beyond the vehicle. Outward-facing. Sensors blast outwards to receive data that enables the car to navigate safely and avoid collisions

Focus of technology companies and car manufacturers, innovating to create new forms of transport. Focus on occupant benefits – safety and efficiency gains from not driving

Refers to data sharing between multiple vehicles. Inward-facing. Receiving operational commands form an external entity. e.g. to maintain equal distance between a convoy of lorries

Focus of governments and transportation planners, to optimise use of road networks, e.g. reducing congestion. Note: includes modern car-sharing schemes such as Uber

Combining both approaches could lead to the virtual elimination of driver error, believed to be responsible for over 80% of accidents on roads.

So what might happen to urban spaces and human behaviour when people have the convenience of a car but no longer need to drive it?

Impact on journey time

  • People might start living further away from the work place. If people don’t have to drive, work can continue during the journey
  • If journey distances lengthen, people may start to look further afield for more desirable and higher-paying jobs
  • People might also start to travel further and more frequently for other activities, such as shopping, leisure and short vacations

In various economic models, the outcome was always the same. The rise of automated and connected cars leads to increased miles travelled and number of journeys undertaken. Traffic will increase, not decrease, with models predicting an increase of between 10% and 25%. That creates an environmental impact as well as placing increased pressure on road networks.

I use public transport a lot for my journeys, mostly the train for travelling into London. I love that I can work, read, relax, whatever (within reason!). The biggest hassle, aside from the cost (rail travel in the UK is expensive) is getting to and from the station. Research has shown that delays waiting to board transport causes far more anxiety than delays during travel. I can testify to this. Waiting on a platform is wasted time because, aside from reading, you can’t do much when you have to be ready to board and waiting areas on platforms aren’t exactly kitted out for comfort. Ditto for airports if you don’t have access to the exclusive lounges. But once you are boarded, you can settle down and get on with whatever you want. A delay is still an inconvenience, but not as disruptive as when waiting for the mode of transport to arrive.  That inconvenience is reduced further if you eliminate the disruptions caused by transferring between different modes of transport.

Impact on household vehicle fleet

  • Potential to redefine vehicle ownership – what type of vehicle becomes desirable?
  • Increases likelihood of giving up personal vehicles: validates car-sharing as a mainstream trend
  • Could reduce demand for parking in towns and cities, impacting land-use and infrastructure

This was an area I really hadn’t given much consideration to. What effect would automation have on our choice of car and the design of cars. The majority of self-driving vehicles currently be trialled either look like traditional small hatchbacks or even smaller bubble-like cars. But what if the reverse happened? Not needing to drive frees up time for other activities and people may desire new interior facilities to be incorporated as standard.

What if the typical car journey became
more like travelling by private jet?

The hallmark of the wealthy elite is the personal private jet. A small plane fitted out like a miniature (or not-so-miniature, depending on budget) apartment and office. What if cars went the same way? What if everyone could have the private jet experience, albeit travelling at slower speeds whilst still restricted to ground-level travel? Would it lead to bigger cars…? What would be the impact on the environment and transport infrastructure?

Interior of a private jet

Could the future car interior more closely resemble a private jet?

…taking it a step further, what if the car became more like a mobile home? And what if that became more desirable to own than a fixed home? Younger generations are less likely to bother with fixed telephone landlines, relying instead on their mobile phone and wireless connectivity. What if home ownership went the same way and owning a fixed structure on a parcel of land became a burden instead of an asset?

Impact on urban infrastructure

In the USA, upwards of 30% of city surface area is occupied by parking facilities. If private car ownership declined in favour of car-sharing services, it may be possible to reclaim a significant amount of that land.

What happens to current forms of public transport, like buses and trains? Will automated vehicles enabling point-to-point trips between destinations result in less walking and cycling?  And how would that affect the health and well-being of citizens? In London, there has been significant investment to improve the city for pedestrians and cyclists and deterring vehicles through congestion charging. The result has been a 30% decline in traffic over the past decade. Could automated vehicles cause a reversal to that trend?

“Should we be investing in high-speed rail?”

The best thing going for high-speed rail investments is speed. We are unlikely to see cars travelling on the ground at 300 miles per hour. But there has already been extensive criticism of plans in the UK to invest in a new high-speed rail line when speed was the primary justification. Regular commuters highlighted that, thanks to the rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets over the past decade, rail journeys are no longer lost time from a productivity standpoint. If driverless cars enable the same productivity gains, will demand for trains diminish? Time becomes less important when the working day can incorporate journey time.

If time becomes less of a consideration, will cost become the main policy tool to influence behaviour? Peak-time and congestion pricing is rising in popularity but has its pitfalls. It risks creating an inequitable system where the ‘haves’ are able to purchase time in a way the ‘have not’s’ can’t.

Impact on travel behaviour

This issue came out of the discussion following the talk. For obvious reasons, automated cars are likely to be programmed to be extremely deferential to pedestrians and cyclists, i.e. to take every possible measure to avoid collisions. It’s the classic dilemma to pose as a potential barrier to adoption of automated cars. What happens if your car has to choose between hitting multiple pedestrians versus sacrificing the single occupant of the vehicle? Would anyone get into an automated car knowing it might decide to kill them for the sake others?

The discussion looked at the challenge from another angle. If pedestrians and cyclists knew that automated cars were programmed to avoid them, would such knowledge alter how they travel along and across roads? Would people start to take more risks, expecting the cars to automatically get out of the way?

There’s another behaviour to consider too – trust. Not just trust in machines to take control of the steering wheel. But also to be comfortable with sharing private data. For autonomous and connected cars to work, you have to hand over a lot of personal information. Every last metre of your journey will be tracked and identifiable. Many people are not happy with the level of invasive tracking that already occurs in our increasingly digitised urban lives.

It was a useful reminder that it is important to seek out potential issues to offset the benefits when modelling new forms of transportation. If you don’t consider the offsets, there is a danger that you are painting a much rosier picture than what will really happen. Doesn’t stop politicians and headline-grabbers from doing exactly that. But scientists, engineers and planners shouldn’t be chasing popularity votes.

007's Aston Martin

007’s Aston Martin

To close out was a more lovely consideration for why automation might not happen as quickly or as extensively as the models predict. There is an emotional connection between people and gadgets. The James Bond movie franchise utilises this connection in Bond’s relationship with Q, creating ever-increasingly futuristic toys for Bond to use in his travels. Would we be as impressed with those gadgets if no human involvement was required?  There is no logical reason currently to send humans to Mars. An unmanned flight would be far more sensible given the cost and risk involved. But the possibility of a manned flight within our lifetime sparks far more media interest…

It was a great seminar that raised some opportunities and challenges I hadn’t previously considered when looking at the growing trend of autonomous and connected vehicles.


All images in the post were kindly shared under creative commons license for non-commercial use, sourced via photopin:


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