Driverless cars – or Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) as they’re officially known – are big news. Many of us are dreaming of the day when we can sit back watching a hologram of Game of Thrones: The Return while technology drives us from Surrey to Soho. Perhaps. But there are huge implications for using driverless forms of transport, in terms of traffic congestion, health and society in general.

More cars – more traffic

According to the London Assembly, when driverless cars could reach the mainstream in the 2030s and when they do, some people may switch from walking or public transport and get their own vehicle. This could lead to London’s already-congested roads becoming much more so. The Mayor’s draft transport strategy states ‘Even if technology is able to improve how efficiently cars use road space, connected and autonomous cars will not be as space- efficient as walking, cycling or public transport.” And think of all the extra journeys – and traffic – if commuters and shoppers are dropped off by driverless cars that turn around empty and go home again, so that their owner doesn’t need to pay for parking.

Health and mobility

Then there’s the health implications, both good and bad. In theory, self-driving cars will mean less accidents but obviously time will tell. Driverless cars may be electric, so non-polluting in that respect (good), but generating the electricity to run them will cause pollution if it’s from fossil fuels (bad). Also, if individuals switch from public transport to their own driverless car, they’re likely to spend less time walking and more time sitting. This would significantly increase the number of people having problems with chronic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, for those with mobility issues, currently dealing with inaccessible tube stations and often crowded buses, driverless cars could provide an excellent solution to getting around.

Aside from thinking about private cars and individual drivers, London’s governing bodies need to look instead at the bigger picture: how to keep people moving on the city streets in the most efficient way possible with the fewest negative effects. The logical answer might lie in promoting autonomous buses with disincentives for private road vehicles of any kind, with exceptions for people with mobility issues whose lives are opened up by them.

Bring on the autonomous buses?

The London Assembly’s future transport report reports “The Mayor and TfL should consider the potential development and impact of autonomous bus technology on London. A review of this area should be undertaken during 2018/19 and the potential implications for London’s existing bus network”.

At this point in time, London’s buses are way ahead of the rest of the country with low prices and numerous services. Whatever your political persuasion, the fact is that continued regulation has delivered a fully joined-up service with cheap fares and simple ticket options that make things easy for customers. According to Time Out a £1.50 fare could take you just over 25 miles on particular routes across the capital though most people’s journeys are far shorter. Compare this to deregulated Manchester with its 20 operators, 100 ticket types that can’t be used across different companies and widely varying levels of service on different routes. When it comes to driverless buses, there may be a mountain to climb in terms of safety and practicality, but for service design and customer experience London already has huge advantages over most other parts of Britain.

So, could we really see driverless buses in the capital and would people be happy to use them? If they’re shown to be safe, probably yes. But though they may be autonomous, they’re still likely to be staffed. This will be necessary to provide customer service, deal with any unexpected issues and lessen the likelihood of antisocial behaviour – as well as ensure people are still paying fares rather than treating them as a free service of course.

But sadly, despite headlines suggesting they’re imminent, you’re unlikely to see driverless buses ambling around Hackney any time soon. They’re likely to appear first in particular locations where there’s not much traffic and the environment is far less complicated. For instance, Stagecoach are currently running UK trials with driverless buses in its depots. In China smaller vehicles will apparently soon be appearing in airports, tourist spots and industrial parks. A report by Professor David Begg commissioned by Clear Channel, concedes “it is highly unlikely we will see driverless buses in London before 2050. The complex driving conditions common to the capital’s roads are not conducive to full automation.” What we are likely to see in the meantime is smaller shared ‘pod’ vehicles as seen in the Greenwich Gateway project, again starting out in less complicated environments rather than on public roads.

Planning for the future

Still, however long it takes, exciting times lie ahead, and having been burnt by the rapid rise of Uber, it looks like TfL and others are determined to understand and plan for the implications of fundamental changes to transport options and road use in the capital. A report by Greenwich’s MERGE Green Consortium has said ‘These are concepts that will deliver enormous benefits to the public and will help our cities become safer, more efficient and greener – but only if our cities plan effectively for their incorporation into transport networks.’

Seeing as that 10-minute walk to the bus stop keeps people healthier, and shared vehicles are likely to be a better option for the planet, let’s keep our fingers crossed that at some point driverless buses get the green light. Together with other CAVs they should one day help make London’s streets safer and easier for everyone to get around.

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