15 December 2020 | 9 minutes.

Autonomous vehicles: Driving the cities of tomorrow

Jacopo Scudellari
Research Analyst
In the last decade driving automation technologies have grown rapidly, presenting new systems that are ready to change current mobility habits around the world. But most of the media hype and industry expectations are inflated – here’s a reality check:

Podcast with Jacopo Scudellari and Klemen Koželj. Source: Smart mobility podcast

Today the most evolved passenger cars on the automotive market can be classified as Level 2 on the SAE classification (Figure 1), but can’t be considered autonomous vehicles (AVs). They have driving assistance systems and can drive alone under certain conditions, but there is still a long road to full automation – with recent fatal crashes serving as a stark reminder.

Announcing the first AVs before 2020, media and car manufacturers have inflated expectations and generated great enthusiasm around AVs. Yet undoubtedly AVs will have a disruptive impact on the transport system, but for the moment, the technology is too young and uncertain to ensure positive benefits. In fact, autonomous technology is growing faster than the legislation, and even if tests are starting to be carried out around the world, it is not clear how and by who the transition to AVs should be steered. At the same time, a great awareness about the possible (positive or negative) externalities of this sociotechnical transition is rising among planners and public administrations.

Positive and negative effects expected by autonomous vehicles

The wide diffusion of AVs in the mobility system could generate a range of potential effects. First, there are three socio-economic effects presented by the automotive industry as revolutionary: road safety, accessibility and free time. Consider a car driving autonomously and able to “speak” with other vehicles: removing human error would reduce fatalities; there would be more possibilities for those currently unable to drive; and free up people to do something else during their travel time – like resting or working. Of course, these impacts will depend on the adopted level of the technology and the penetration rate of AVs into the entire car fleet.

On the other hand, there are several potential effects that AVs could generate to the spatial urban dimension that have not been considered enough.

Autonomous vehicles will turn riders into users.

Thanks to radar, lidar and cameras, AVs will be extremely accurate in their movement, radically reducing the space necessary for circulation and parking. Moreover, vehicles could pick up/ drop off the users right outside their door, before then parking themselves. Consequently parking spaces could be replaced by a transition area, with parking transferred to dedicated spaces or structures where land is cheaper, leaving space for new developments, public areas or new green spaces.

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