It's not just self-driving cars, it is a whole New Mobility Now

New mobility
© WSP

A new study looks at how AVs are part of a much bigger picture of how we get around.

Writing in Citilab, Richard Florida writes that Driverless cars won't save us:

The vision of millions of workers logging hours from their comfortable offices on wheels can be intoxicating. And, yes, it is true that the desire to avoid long commutes is one of the things that has sent affluent Americans streaming back to cities over the past decade and a half. But a driverless car is still a car.

We have said much the same thing on TreeHugger, that they will be congestion disaster and that our streets will be clogged with self-driving cars. But then I am once again seduced by the research by engineering and architecture giant WSP, which has released a new white paper, New Mobility Now.

This is much more than just self-driving cars; it's a much bigger picture. WSP concludes that five themes have to all come together for future mobility to actually work:

five aspects to mobility now© WSP

  • Automated driving. Sometimes called ‘driverless cars’, automated technologies have been emerging for decades and will increasingly affect all types of vehicles.
  • Connected vehicles, transport systems and networks. New forms of connectivity offer the potential for far greater real-time and off-line information for the benefit of those using the network and those who are responsible for its operation and maintenance.
  • Shared use. This bundle lies at the heart of place-making evolution and relates specifically to vehicle ownership models, and the extent to which we might be prepared to move towards shared mobility and away from individual car ownership. It links to the concept of Mobility as a service or Maas.
  • Electric vehicles. Political support for a move away from internal combustion engines and towards electric vehicles is gaining momentum around the world as the air quality impacts of petrol vehicles are better understood.
  • Business models. This element is critical to cost – both actual and perceived – and the ability to create change that will stand the test of time. It requires fast, decisive action.

This is not too far from what we were saying years ago when we first started discussing self-driving cars -- that they would be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there would likely be about a tenth as many of them. But that vision has been slipping away. WSP's New Mobility doesn't give up on it. They recognize that these new automated cars cannot be treated like private cars:

This is about defining urban and suburban environments, supporting the active modes of walking and cycling, public transport and freight, as well as first and last mile movements in their local context. If and when automated vehicles become part of the public mobility offer, no matter what vehicle size, they should no longer be treated in the same way as privately owned cars.

The Connectivity pitch is troubling.

are we all going to be connected?© WSP

V2V has an important role for autonomous operation, but V2I is critical, not least to control and reassign traffic. Several traditional auto manufacturers have come to the conclusion that vehicle-based sensors are not sufficient by themselves for AVs.

Fine, so the car can talk to traffic lights and other cars, that makes a lot of sense. But that V2X is troubling. Is everyone on foot or on a bike going to have to carry a phone or be chipped, so that the car can detect them?

They have to be shared.

This is, unfortunately, key to them working at all. Otherwise, it is just like Richard Florida says: "Although you won’t be driving them yourself, driverless cars won’t be able to overcome the reality of congested roads, occasional accidents, and unpredictable commutes."

Unfortunately even WSP says this will be a challenge.

We tend to underestimate the level of attachment of some people to their existing (and future) cars at our peril. It seems that there are generational changes in play, and we can expect that these will continue to shift over time...Policy-makers and service providers have a challenge ahead to convince communities, perhaps gradually, of the benefits of shared mobility and incentivize the most efficient outcomes at a local level.

New business models are needed.

The business model strand, linked closely with pricing, will unshift from today's seemingly eclectic selection of pilots and operating models across the automated, connected and electric strands to a truly sustainable New Mobility 'bundle' for the long-run. The shared mobility strand already has various business models in operation, but we see that these would evolve and become more integrated with the wider New Mobility Concept.

Heirchy© WSP

There is a lot to admire (and a lot to absorb) in this report. WSP does not look at autonomous cars on their own but in the larger context of the city and larger community. They understand that there are other people out there, noting that "well-managed shared mobility will create new opportunities to strengthen a sustainable modal hierarchy, with active modes – pedestrians and cyclists – at the top. This, in turn, will help to create and maintain better places and routes for all."

The main thing that comes out of this report is that this issue is complex and complicated. Right now the American government is pretty much just letting the AV promoters go wild without thinking these issues through; perhaps everyone should stop thinking just about technology and start talking about all the other issues too.

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