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Are driverless cars still the future of urban mobility?

In 2016, a Business Insider Intelligence report predicted that, by 2020, there would be 10 million autonomous vehicles on the world's roads. As the year draws to a close, that figure looks wildly inaccurate. Why has progress stalled?

World Built Environment Forum
11 November 2020

Autonomous vehicle technology is streets ahead of autonomous vehicle policy

“This is probably the reason that autonomous mobility is not moving as fast as it could be,” says Violeta Bulc, former EU Commissioner for Transport. Ms Bulc is better positioned than most to pass judgement, having led the drafting of European Union regulations around driverless vehicles in 2018.

The death of Elaine Herzberg that same year gave legislators pause for thought. The 49 year-old Arizona resident died after being hit by a driverless SUV travelling at 40mph. Chris Choa, urban strategist and Executive Director at Outcomist, doesn’t seek to play down this, or similar, tragedies. He does, though, insist that driverless cars, by reducing the scope for human error on our roads, promise a future in which vehicular fatalities are fewer.

“What’s going to ultimately drive the adoption of driverless technology is that it’s going to be safer,” he says. “As the technology improves, safety levels will increase.”

Proponents of this argument have thus far struggled to win over the sceptics. Perception, it seems, is everything. It’s estimated that, each year, 1.35 million people are killed on the world’s roads, but these deaths are rarely deemed newsworthy. Meanwhile, accidents involving driverless cars, though rare, make international headlines.

Are driverless cars still the future of urban mobility?

In 2016, a Business Insider Intelligence report predicted that, by 2020, there would be 10 million autonomous vehicles on the world’s roads. At the time, the technology was maturing at such a rate as to make the projection seem entirely plausible. Driverless cars were widely considered a viable alternative to existing high-capacity public transit networks. But as 2020 draws to a close, that 10 million figure looks wildly inaccurate and the promise of autonomous vehicles remains unrealised. Why has the progress stalled?

While the public remains unconvinced, legislators are likely to continue treading lightly around the issue. “We require a behaviour change,” says Ms Bulc. “We need innovations in human behaviour as well as business modelling, and the redefinition of value and liability networks.”

And Chris Choa is in “absolute” agreement. “In the end, it’s not the hardware, it’s the software,” he says. “By that, I mean it’s the people, it’s the regulatory environment, and it’s the cultural attitudes that pose the biggest challenge.”

In the end, it’s not the hardware, it’s the software. It’s the people, it’s the regulatory environment, and it’s the cultural attitudes that pose the biggest challenge to widespread adoption.

Chris Choa
Executive Director, Outcomist

Many of the benefits promised by autonomous vehicles can be realised by other means

Are current highways networks, which are in large part legacy systems inherited from the 20th century, really fit for driverless cars? It seems fair to assume that such a radical modal shift in mobility would necessitate an extensive redesign of the urban realm. But when pressed on this issue, Chris Choa urges a reframing of the question.

“The goal is liveability. We should not ask ‘how well suited is the city to autonomous vehicles?’, but ‘how well suited is the city to people?’ Many of the promises of autonomous vehicles could be better delivered by creating cities that are easier to walk or cycle through. You don’t necessarily need a vehicle at all.”  

During our recent webinar, we surveyed WBEF members on the future of autonomous vehicles. Three-quarters of respondents believe that, in spite of the many obstacles to widespread adoption, driverless cars remain the future of urban mobility.

“As we are breathlessly pursuing the potential of technology, we should keep our minds open to the possibility not just of the smart city, but of the ‘dumb’ city. There may actually be some cities that are very slow to adopt smart technology because they’re constrained by informal systems or extreme topographical challenges. Perhaps we’ll learn something from how those cities approach mobility that can inform our own approaches.”

Investors remain sceptical, particularly at institutional level

There is no shortage of funds ready for deployment. Investors, says Violeta Bulc, are sitting on sizeable mounds of dry powder: “They are hungry for good projects,” she says. “But there is much more money out there than good projects.” It’s a refrain that will be familiar to anyone who has read the WBEF report: Bridging the Gap: Private investment in future infrastructure provision.

Investors are hungry for good projects. hey are looking for two very simple things: transparency and predictability. The ‘angels’ and venture capitalists have come in, but the banks are still very shy.

Violeta Bulc
former EU Commissioner for Transport

The pursuit of a green deal in Europe, exemplified by the European Investment Bank’s pledge to divest from fossil fuels, has provided a nudge in the right direction. Ms Bulc believes that, in this age of innovation, investors should seek to nurture complementarities rather than competition between emerging technologies – particularly where they promise a climate dividend.

“Two processes are underway at the same time,” she says. “The ‘greenification’ of transport and the digitalisation of transport. Bringing these together is proving very hard for the industry.”

In spite of all the above, autonomous vehicles ARE still the future of urban mobility

So say nearly three-quarters of our audience. The hurdles may be high and numerous, but there remains a certain sense of inevitability about the eventual adoption of autonomous mobility solutions. But while a broad consensus exists, at least among the WBEF community, on the question of “if”, the question of “when” remains harder to answer. Says Violeta Bulc: “The technology will take a matter of years. But the whole ecosystem? I think we need decades.”

For Chris Choa, the issue mirrors a wider discussion on how we define social progress as the full effect of the fourth industrial revolution takes hold.

“How much are we willing to trust a technocratic approach to better living, in which we do realise benefits, but we give up some personal autonomy? This is not just an issue that is being hotly debated in the tech bubble. It’s being debated in every aspect of our life, in polities all around the world.”