Give Way? People and the AV-ready city

To date, research on autonomous vehicles (AVs) has focused on their potential impact on society, public response to them and the likely response of their users. 

Debate often centres on whether ‘Level 5 autonomy’ is possible at all. But it is becoming increasingly clear that cities are going to need to be changed to accommodate AVs, rather than the other way round. So this piece suggests that it’s time for a renewed focus for research: 

What is the current and future relationship between ‘AV-ready’ cities and people?

View of urban mobility from the top of skyscraper

Current concerns

There’s a large body of industry (and other) research which focuses on the interaction between cars, driverless or otherwise, and other road users: be they cyclists, pedestrians or other drivers. This approach is exemplified by Ford's research on how to improve pedestrian safety by sending a warning to the driver before the collision, their work on inattentive pedestrians, or what they have termed, ‘petextrians’. 

The research team at Nissan in Silicon Valley have explored how to understand pedestrians’ crossing behavior and shown the importance of eye contact with drivers. Waymo recently received a patent for technology that would soften a car's body in the event of a collision with a pedestrian. These are all efforts focused on solving the challenge of making autonomous vehicles safer. 

A second body of work explores public responses to, and the economic and social impacts arising from, the advent of AVs. This explores the public debate (and moral panic) about the emergence of driverless vehicles. These are debates on a par with those arising from the advent of any novel disruptive technology.

For example, what are the economic and social costs of the estimated 25,000 monthly job losses that AVs are predicted to cause  and will they materialise at all? Will the drivers of taxis and freight find new roles and how long will that take? The jury is still out and history, as Carl Benedikt Frey argues in The Technology Trap, may be the best (and most reassuring) guide to the future we have. 

Then there are the philosophical and ethical dilemmas - usually termed the ‘Trolley Problem’: should your driverless car hit a pedestrian to save the lives of its occupants? According to scholars and researchers, as this NYT piece makes clear, the answer depends on who you ask.

A third, broad area of exploration is around the possible impacts of AVs on the built environment.  Historically, transportation modes have shaped how our cities are built. Narrow alleys characterize medieval cities in which walking was the main transportation mode to get around town. London is home to mews (a row or courtyard of stables and carriage houses with living quarters above them), once home to the equine possessions of affluent urbanites during the age of the horse.  

Electric technology powered trams climbing up Lisbon's boulevards

As trams became widespread in urban settings, they made urban sprawling possible as the distance became dissolved by affordable, accessible and quick transportation for all. Cars rewrote the rules of urban geography again, making suburbs possible and transforming (and congesting) city centres

Transportation doesn’t just allow people to move around cities, it forcefully and incontrovertibly re-shapes them. 

Reshaping cities for AVs or people?

In that light the relative absence of research into current and future reshaping of cities that have been or are being transformed to make room for AVs is revealing. 

Histories of the car and cities often point to the need to introduce new rules for pedestrians that ‘scripted’ or guided their response to the new automotive interlopers on the streets. In the US the offence of jaywalking was introduced to ensure cars took priority on roads.  AVs are throwing up similar questions: 

What response will car makers lobby for when pedestrians realize that stepping out in front of an AV causes it to stop - allowing the pedestrian to cross the road, but jamming city streets up further?

What will the public response be to any favourable treatment that AVs get in access to city roads? Norway discovered that when electric cars were granted access to bus lanes, only to be filled up with Tesla ‘bullys’, public opinion was less than charitable

What social or cultural fractures will emerge when certain areas of a city are AV-ready but others remain off limits? 

As the difficult challenges of making driverless vehicles that can deal with the world’s cities ‘as they are now’ becomes apparent, and cities transform to enable these new vehicles, what changes will be forced on cities to make them work for AVs? And will those changes work for pedestrians and other road users too? 

As the city starts to yield to the AV, rather than AVs giving way to cities, exploring the dynamics of this emerging and contested interface will become more important. 

There are at least three dimensions to such a research agenda which are technological, architectural and regulatory: 

Technological: how will the technology infrastructures that support AVs and their interactions with other road users interact and inter-operate? Who will own them and what economic or other benefits will ownership make available? 

Spatial: how will AVs alter the economic, social and cultural geography of a city if certain modes of driverless transport and services are available in one area versus another? For a historical parallel consider the way south London has been short-changed in relation to the Underground, compared with north of the river. 

Regulatory: with the AV value chain currently uncertain, who will ultimately own, operate and manage driverless vehicles is uncertain:  manufacturers? ride hailing app? city transport authorities? or even collectives of owners). In this context, how will complex issues of liability work and be understood by city residents? 

Driverless vehicles may be some way off the goal of Level 5 autonomy - drive anywhere, anytime - but they are already making their presence felt on the open road and in geo-fenced test sites. Their success will, in part, depend on the public’s comprehension and acceptance of them. One critical dimension of this will be how they depend on a city bending to become AV-ready and how that process is handled. 

// Filippo Mazzocchi & Simon Roberts

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