The first driverless vehicles are due to hit our streets later in this decade, writes Robbie Turner. As well as having an effect on how we live, work and travel, the rollout could have a profound effect on how our towns, cities and built environment are developed. Our urban spaces are designed around modern “driven” cars with all the infrastructure that goes with it. Most of which will not be required when or if driverless vehicles become the norm.
However, it seems that a time when all vehicles on our roads are self-driving is many years away. There is much to be done before driverless transportation fully replaces traditional vehicles with a number of hurdles that will have to be crossed.
The benefits of driverless vehicles
If driverless vehicles do become widespread this will impact how space in our towns and cities will be utilised and how places are developed in the future. Consider how much of our urban environment is currently designed around the motor vehicle? Vast areas of our town and city centres are given over to parking areas, which are located a convenient distance from where people live, work and shop. It is estimated that in Greater London alone the equivalent of 22 Hyde Parks is taken up with parking spaces for private vehicles. These inner-city parking areas will no longer be needed if driverless vehicles are able to drop off passengers where they need to be and then either park themselves out of town or move on to another journey for another user.
Much of our roadway infrastructure is designed with human use of vehicles in mind. Barriers are designed to keep pedestrians separated from vehicles, lane markings, road signs and traffic lights are there to direct drivers and roads are large enough to accommodate drivers inadvertently straying off line.
Self-driving vehicles will have the ability to communicate with each other and be able to react with their surroundings in a better way. As a result, roads can be narrower, freeing up more space for bike lanes, walkways and green spaces. A lot of street furniture will also disappear as there will be no need for self-driving vehicles to follow road signs or be managed by traffic lights and roundabouts.
Areas of land near main roads could also become more attractive for development. Developers who traditionally may have been deterred from investing in property next to busy roads because of the noise and pollution created by passing vehicles, may think again as vehicles become quieter and cleaner.
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Driverless vehicles could have an impact on the parts of our country that are developed. City centre developments of office and residential buildings are increasingly taking place around transport hubs allowing commuters access city centres office buildings conveniently. The introduction of driverless vehicles would change this, those parts of cities which have traditionally been difficult to access via public transport become more accessible. Driverless vehicles could deliver people directly to these areas or collect people on demand from transport hubs.
The same could also be experienced in more rural areas. Currently, much development takes place in areas that have access to good public transport links. These allow homeowners to live outside city centres and then travel to and from work by walking or parking at the local station or catching a bus. Driverless vehicles will remove the need to be near a local station or transport hub, commuters could be picked up from home and delivered to the station or directly to the place of work without having to leave a car somewhere. This will make rural areas that have traditionally had little or no public transport links more attractive for development.
With the Government’s pledge to ban the sale of all new conventional petrol vehicles and vans by 2030 and replace them with electric or other zero emission vehicles, the way we use fuel stations will also change. It currently takes longer to charge an electric car than it does to re-fuel a vehicle. Fuel stations will be encouraged to transform into places where people will be happy to spend longer. The push towards owning electric vehicles means a fuel station visit will no longer just be a stop off or rest break. Increased waiting times mean it will become more of a ‘destination’. What opportunities does this present to investors? What are the commercial opportunities for offices, retail and leisure to capitalise on the captive market?
Driverless vehicles on our roads needs careful planning to make sure they supplement, rather than replace current public transport services.
If all users were to swap traveling by train or bus to using driverless vehicles, this would lead to a significant increase to the number of vehicles on our roads. Instead of travel by driverless car becoming more efficient, journey times would instead become even longer. The road network would need to expand in order to cope, which could make living and working in cities less pleasant.
Ideally, driverless vehicles should be used for providing a ‘first and final mile’ solution and using public transport should continue to be encouraged. Vehicles should be used for taking people from their homes to the local transport hub to catch a train or bus and then at the other end taking individuals to their place of work. Only through this, and a change of attitude to car ownership where individuals don’t own a vehicle rather just use them on demand, will the number of vehicles on our roads decrease.
What needs to happen?
Before driverless vehicles become commonplace on our roads, a huge investment in infrastructure is needed.
Investment in charging infrastructure is needed first. If we assume that all driverless vehicles will be electrically powered then the infrastructure for charging batteries needs to increase significantly. The Department of Transport claims that currently 4 out of 5 of all electric vehicle owners charge at home. This suggests that car owners who do not have access to off road charging points are put off from buying an electric vehicle as there aren’t enough communal charging points available.
The roll out of public charging locations is sporadic across the country. RAC figures show that a third of all councils have less than 10 charging locations and only three are leading the way with more than 100 charging points. The government has opened up a scheme to provide funding to help Councils roll out more charging stations but take-up has been low.
There is also a question mark over how the national grid would cope if all vehicles on our roads became electric.
The implementation of driverless vehicles will require a huge roll-out of 5G mobile technology. Vehicles will require constant connectivity to the internet to allow them to “talk” to each and transfer positioning and safety data at high speed to the cloud. Without universal connectivity it is unlikely that people will feel safe enough to travel and crucially, that insurers will cover the risk.
This constant connectivity can only be achieved through 5G and to provide total coverage a huge rollout of mobile antennas will be required. Many of these will need to be positioned on privately owned land and landowners will quite rightly, expect payment for access. The ongoing experiences of telecommunications companies seeking to require landowners to make sites for mobile phone masts available shows that the Telecommunications Code has not had the desired effect. The framework that ensures that landowners get a fair price in exchange for the operators getting access to sites has not proved to be successful so far.
Further Government intervention is likely to be required so that 5G operators are given access to the sites that they need.
Operators will need to be incentivised to roll out 5G to more rural areas. As we said earlier, the use of driverless vehicles could have the biggest impact on connectivity for people living out of town, but without incentives 5G operators are likely to concentrate investments in urban areas where population densities and access to potential users are greatest.
With technological advances and the benefits to the environment being so evident, electronic vehicles are the future. Electric car sales are rising strongly; however, they are still lower than petrol or diesel counterparts. And what impact will the pandemic have? Will consumer behaviour change as a result and see a shift back towards car ownership rather than sharing or public transport? It will be interesting to see how many of us will be sat behind self-driving vehicles in 2030.
- Robbie Turner is principal associate at leading law firm Mills & Reeve. Find out more about future of real estate on Mapping the FutuRE, an interactive map offering insights and views of the RE sector