Welcome to the autonomous car future
Driverless cars are queuing up to come on to our roads. A Cambridge transport hackathon asked what the new era of transport will look like.
It’s incredible how embattled transport policy in Cambridge has become, and how economically, politically and technologically challenging it is to deliver for the community it serves.
The scientific and business successes continually being spawned in the region speak of visionary thinkers and an advance towards a future that the local economy is able to help shape. But the thinking on transport remains muddled and bogged down in minutiae. We cannot, apparently – even in the face of the biggest development surge the city has ever seen – forge a system that allows people to get around in reasonable comfort, safety and time. Why not?
To find out what transport policy involves I popped along to the Hilson Moran Autonomous Vehicle Hackathon at Brookgate (by the station) where local leaders and strategists were put together to work out how society will cope with the imminent introduction of driverless vehicles.
The weight of events is tilting the playing field towards autonomous transport on the roads. The Government this summer announced that all petrol and diesel car sales will be banned in 2040. Increasing pressure on diesel emissions has clarified that oil-fuelled engines are endemically bad for air quality and the environment. The testing process for autonomous vehicles is advancing, with projects from Google, Tesla and traditional car makers including Volvo and Ford making progress. James Dyson joined the fray just last week, announcing a £2billion spend on a “radical” electric car that will launched in 2020. Uber’s intention is to build a driverless taxi service – the current model will not just make way for autonomous vehicles, it is funding it.
In the face of all this, firms including Hilson Moran – which ran this event as part of its 40th birthday celebrations to look ahead to the next 40 years – are modelling the built environment autonomous vehicles will inhabit. Organisations such as Smart Cambridge and the Greater Cambridge Partnership are making suggestions. The chief aim of planners in Cambridgeshire is to build settlements which offer non-car alternatives, but the pressure on politicians is immense because they have to juggle the interests of their constituents with the incoming technology and there can be conflicts.
Cambridgeshire County Council has promised to publish a feasibility study on the A10 before the end of the year: one of the recommendations could be to turn it into a dual carriageway. So on the one hand they say we’re driving too much and need to use alternative means of transport, but if the facilities are constantly upgraded for motorists and not so readily available for other means of transport, what do you think will happen?
The event was introduced by Hilson Moran’s head of sustainability Chris Birch and sustainability consultant Marie-Louise Schembri. The delegates were then divided into two teams and asked to go away for two hours (with a pizza break) and devise a storyboard using the title ‘Autonomous Vehicles in Cambridgeshire’. Judges included Dan Clarke of Smart Cambridge.
Team A went off into a huddle: members included Jeanette Walker, director of Cambridge Science Park, whose team compared tomorrow’s transport options with today’s using two families, the Jetsons and the Waltons, which made for a fun presentation. I found myself in a room with Team B: Hilson Moran project director Duncan Woods, Bidwells project manager Jamie Garrett, Mills & Reeve partner Stephen Hamilton, Smarter Cambridge Transport leader – and Cambridge Independent columnist – Edward Leigh, plus Simon Roden from Formation Architects, who created superb storyboard images, and Steven Johnson, also from Hilson Moran.
The first thing to decide was the date in the future we wanted our story to be set in. Having settled on 2040 we then considered what the impact of autonomous cars would be on one household – two parents and their two children
They wake up in the morning at 7.30am and what happens?
The two adults have to get to work, the two children have to get to school. How? This is when it got difficult. Everyone has their own ideas of what an autonomous vehicle era would be like. For some, it meant a mix of vehicles, some oil-powered and independent, some driverless cars, and some driverless taxis or pods. But the truth is that this is a logistical, insurance, safety and technological impossibility. It would mean more chaos than there is now. Eventually the group accepted that 90 per cent of vehicles on the autonomous highway would be owned by a corporation, and maybe five to 10 per cent would have individual owners – and even then they would be 100 per cent autonomous. See the difficulty for a politician there – where does that leave today’s automotive industry?
The good thing about the autonomous vehicle era is that there will be no on-street parking, which will effectively create new lanes for cyclists. Today’s car parks would be available for housing. “A huge amount of space would be regained, kids might even play in the street again,” said Stephen Hamilton. “And there will be as many garage conversions as there are roof conversions today.”
So, back to the storyboard. How do these four people get from their home to where they need to be? After a lot of wrangling this is what we came up with…
The family live in Cottenham. Child 1 cycles to Cottenham Village College along relatively empty streets. Schoolchildren are far safer – everyone is. Did you know that 1.25 million people in the world still die a vehicle-related death every year? That’s one every 25 seconds – and another seven million die from air pollution annually. The idea that today’s cars are safer will soon be so much fake news.
Child 2 heads for Hills Road. He or she gets a Tesla-funded school pod to go to college. Their smartphone lets them know what time the next pod is due. They walk to a nearby pod stop, wait there and get whisked into town by a 10-person driverless vehicle, which has six seats and room for four standing.
Adult 1, the mum, works in London. She sets off early in a pod: she leases the pod from the transport firm. It’s not the same pod – she drives it to Waterbeach station, parks it up there, and will collect another available pod for the journey home. The pods can be charged up at all drop-off points and are interchangeable. At Waterbeach station she gets into a hyperloop train, a 700mph Elon Musk-designed system which works by magnetic levitation porting carriages through a low-pressure tube, and she gets to London in seven minutes. There, she jumps into a driverless Uber taxi for the last leg to her office.
Dad works in Cambridge: he books a ticket on a pod and it comes to his front door and takes him past his place of work in town. He pays a premium for the door-to-door option but the service means he spends more time in the office and is less stressed when he gets to work and arrives home.
Welcome to the future.