The Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on the Urban Environment

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Ben Flippance, Design Director of IDP Architects, challenged the Coventry Society to think about the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future environment at our September meeting.

The car already shapes the development of our towns and cities. Ben showed us photographs of Las Vegas, Morton in Marsh and the redeveloped Longbridge Car Factory to demonstrate how the car determines the shape of the urban form. At Longbridge, where you pretty much have to arrive by car, the layout is determined by large car parks and large construction units.

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The redeveloped Longbridge showing the impact of cars on design.

Vehicle designers define five levels of automation, ranging from level 0, which is no automation at all to level four, where the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

It is predicted that autonomous vehicles will come to prominence between 2040 – 2070.

Autonomous vehicles offer great opportunities for disabled people, many of whom never leave their home.

Once we are all using autonomous vehicles there is the prospect of faster and safer travel. Vehicles can be put into “road trains” which can allow cars to be closer together at high speed on dedicated smaller roads.

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A “Road Train” of the future

Ben argued that personal ownership of cars is likely to decline because of the legal implication of accidents and it is probable that in the future cars will be owned by car companies and hired or leased to travellers.

Another implication is that less space will be needed for roads leading to the release of land for other uses. When autonomous cars are not in use, they can park themselves away from city centres, on the edge of towns where land is cheaper. With autonomous cars there is less need for the plethora of road signs and street clutter and residential streets could be reclaimed from the dominance of parked cars.

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Once we no longer need to drive our cars there are opportunities to do other things in them, such as office activity, mobile living space and sleeping. Ben went on to suggest that this could be taken further. He argued that there is a continuum running from a car to a big car, a camper van, a motorhome, a caravan, a static caravan and a house and autonomous vehicles could take on any of these roles. Units could be docked together in small to large developments. In a flight of fancy he showed drawings of the possible configurations of autonomous vehicles in the future.

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Of course there were a few non sequiturs in the presentation. It doesn’t seem likely that docking sites and such developments would take place if the vehicles are not owned by individuals. Also the interim period whilst there is a mixed economy of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles is likely to limit the benefits that could be achieved.

However Ben laid down the challenge of thinking about what the future might be like if we widely adopt autonomous vehicles!

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