Autonomous Vehicles: The Future of Mobility?

By Natasha Manawadu

Autonomous mobility calls to mind a futuristic utopia for some. For others, it could mean an undesirable neoliberal extension of unfettered automobility. Meanwhile, conversations surrounding what autonomous vehicles (AV) mean for employment, for ethics, for planning, and for the wider politics of transport underpin contemporary policy debate. For the second panel in our ‘What I wish Planners & Designers Knew’ series, MUPSS partnered with the Good City Foundation — a multilateral development organisation dedicated to making cities better for people — to delve into the complex, yet pertinent questions imperative to ensuring autonomous mobility is implemented for the betterment of our cities.

Our moderator, Vincent Ng, President of MUPSS, was graciously joined by panel speakers, Dr. Crystal Legacy, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne, Knowles Tivendale, Managing Director of Movement & Place Consulting, Marc Hoag, Principal Partner of Hoag+Co and host of the world’s #1 autonomous cars podcast, and Marion Terrill, Transport & Cities Program Director at the Grattan Institute, for an in-depth discussion on the role autonomous vehicles may play in our mobility futures.

GIF Source: Perception Projects from the Self-Driving Car Nanodegree Program by David Silver.

Transport is the blood which runs in our cities’ veins; transport shifts reconfigure our urban systems, substantially changing how we live, work, and play. Transport futurists herald autonomous vehicles as the transport revolution which will reimagine urban mobility for the better. The question is, are they right?

Image Source: Government Technology (Future Structure).

The answer to our collective question is not so simple. While AVs are ‘overpromising and under-delivering’ at the moment, Marc Hoag is confident that while they are ‘not yet safer than human drivers, of course they will be’, and in fact ‘any company not concurrently developing EVs (electric vehicles) and AVs will be dead or dying in 10 years’, indicating a potentially rapid ascendancy of AVs on our streets and in our cities. However, Marion Terrill cautions that it is ‘tempting to express a lot of confidence about what the future holds’, but ‘we’re terrible at predicting when [technology shifts] might happen’. Rather, Terrill implores us to conceptualise technology as part of an ‘iron triangle’, comprising technology, economics, and society. In the case of AVs, societal acceptance is key to understanding its trajectory. What do we collectively want or don’t want, and under what conditions might we introduce AVs?

Indeed, societal values and norms are a key aspect to understanding AV’s potentiality. Dr. Crystal Legacy calls for a nuanced understanding of the value of AV technology; ‘if it is an extension of the status quo’, AVs will reproduce the wider socio-spatial inequalities extant within cities today. Thus, we need to ‘lean into’ these difficult, and even uncomfortable conversations in order to ‘shape a different version of the future’. We also need to re-conceptualise our image of the ‘autonomous vehicle’: rather than imagining AVs as cars, ‘let’s foreground public transport when we discuss autonomous vehicles’.

GIF Source: “How to driving cars see?” by Albert Lai.

Are AVs a viable transport future? Knowles Tivendale thinks that ‘we need to be really careful about assuming that AV cars are something completely different’ from other AVs, such as currently operational autonomous trains and trucks. Rather, Tivendale believes society will not change drastically; ‘fundamentally, humans will seek to reduce their personal effort’, whilst maximising personal opportunity. If so, will AVs really steer humanity onto a new and better course?

Why then, are we so fascinated with AVs? Beyond maximising road efficiency and significantly reducing transport-related greenhouse gas emissions — if we assume AVs are land-based — , Terrill believes that ‘one of the reasons people are so enthusiastic about AVs is their safety benefits’. Car accidents, injuries and deaths remain a significant negative externality of current car use, and AVs are positioned to potentially ameliorate such tragedies. Moreover, AVs could solve our congestion woes, incentivising AV use by reducing commuting time and cost. Additionally, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, autonomous cars might address people’s fears of densely-packed public transport modes.

Image Source: NIKKEI Asian Review

Will AV demand then compete with public transport demand, and can they be integrated? Tivendale reminds us that such integration is separate to AV technology, instead relying on data algorithms which currently exist. Indeed, AVs can be integrated into public transport, if a government proactively decides what AVs will be used for. Tivendale highlights the example of Singapore, where the government is not interested in private AVs, and is looking to use AVs for freight and public transport to maximise public benefit.

Ultimately, there is more to AVs than simply its technology. AVs may be realised sooner than current policy makers anticipate, underscoring the importance of coordinating governance, economics and society in the implementation of AVs in our cities.

Watch our panel: CLICK HERE

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