The role of automated vehicles in delivering smarter cities
28 July 2016 • Author(s): Professor Nick Reed, TRL
It is well known that the population living in our cities is growing. Predictions from the Office of National Statistics suggest that by 2024, London’s population will have grown by 13.7% to nearly ten million inhabitants. As a result, existing infrastructure and services will need to improve to meet the demands placed upon them.
At the same time many city populations are ageing. The number of people aged over 65 years is growing faster than any other age group, with the number of people in London aged 65 and over expected to increase by 23.6% within the same period. Whilst increasingly technologically capable, the needs of this older population must be accommodated by future service provision.
With existing transport systems unlikely either to cope with growing demand or meet targets for air quality, accessibility and inclusion, cities across the world are racing to become smarter, embracing digital, information and communication technologies to provide better services, opportunities and quality of life for residents. One technology innovation in particular that has the potential to deliver increases in the range and capacity of mobility services for city dwellers over the next twenty years is automated vehicles.
The role of automated vehicles
Automated vehicles have the potential to bring a number of benefits to people, roads and cities. Firstly, improved safety – 1.25 million people die each year on the roads and that in over 90% of road collisions human error is a contributory factor. Secondly, efficiency of time – the ability to remain connected and productive whilst on the move means that people can work, relax or socialise whilst travelling, enhancing the travel experience. Thirdly, accessibility – automated vehicles can support independent mobility for older and disabled travellers leading to better economic, health and social outcomes. Finally, flexibility – the absence of a driver means that different shapes, sizes and numbers of vehicles can be used to suit the mobility task at hand, improving the efficiency of journeys.
Learning by example
To start introducing automated vehicles into cities, TRL is leading the GATEway project, an £8million research project to investigate the use of autonomous vehicles in an urban environment. Working alongside a consortium of partners with funding from Innovate UK, the project will test fully driverless, zero emission vehicles for the movement of passengers and goods in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London. Rather than being technology-focused, we’ll be working to understand how public, the media and industry learn to trust and accept the use of these vehicles in our cities.
Beyond their role as a transportation device, the vehicles we use may play an intriguing further role in the context of a smart city. Since these vehicles will regularly tour the city streets equipped with an array of cameras and sensors, they can play a very useful role in collecting data on the state of the infrastructure, reporting to authorities on the presence of potholes, degradation of line markings, failed streetlights and missing road-studs; thereby enabling earlier, better targeted and ultimately more efficient maintenance.
Currently the changes in urban mobility associated with automated vehicles are only just beginning. As we move further along this journey it’s likely that individual vehicle ownership will become less attractive and integrated multimodal transport options including car or cycle sharing more appealing for city travellers. Increasingly automated vehicles will provide new, smart travel options and their zero emission powertrains will contribute to decarbonisation of transport (at the point of delivery), improving air quality with substantial associated health benefits.
Looking beyond the introduction of automated vehicles, the move towards a connected and automated transport ecosystem will also bring a wealth of new opportunities in regards to data analysis and sharing. Rather than being viewed in silos, data in areas such as asset management, safety, air quality, traffic volume and congestion can be analysed holistically, providing organisations such as road operators, insurers and local councils with a better understanding of movement throughout the city and any impact on the environment.
Finally, as automation of vehicles develops it is vital that we think beyond the automation of existing vehicle types and step back to consider how this technology can enable radical improvements in the way we move people, goods and services, potentially using new vehicle types, new forms of connectivity and involving new interactions between people, vehicles and infrastructure and new insights achieved through data analytics. Developments in automation are proceeding rapidly and with appropriate research and thoughtful planning, smart cities of the future look set to reap the benefits in the years to come.