... Self-drive cars
Cars, and the effect they have on Ipswich, have featured heavily in recent issues of the Newsletter. April alone covered ring-roads and the Wet Dock Crossing, parking & housing, congestion & short journeys, the future of town centre retail, car park capacity and a plaintive cry for a ‘modal shift' from the use of private cars.
However, there is a massive change on the horizon which will make a big difference to towns, shops, commuting and planning. If we can predict even some of the effect it will have on the townscape, then perhaps Ipswich can be in front of the wave for once. And this change is …driverless cars.
This is no abstract research topic. Major car manufacturers and now wealthy entrepreneurs have been pouring in huge sums over many years. Self-driving cars work now. Over the past few years very ordinary cars have had more and more of these features. The VW Golf that can hold you a safe distance from the car in front on dual carriageways up to whatever speed you set, even if the car in front suddenly brakes and then accelerates away; which alerts you if you wander out of the lane and will actually steer you round the corner if you fail to; where the handbrake is totally automatic; and which can park itself in tight spaces. It has automatic emergency braking to avoid collisions in towns too.
The Google self-driving car project has no human controls, just a means to enter your destination, and has driven over one and a half million miles on public roads, with only one collision down to its control systems (they've been hit from behind at traffic lights a few times by human drivers). So don't imagine the completely self-driving car is still far off - it is much closer than you might think.
Why use them?
Why will these cars become popular? (1) Because safety will be down to the car and not the driver. (2) No longer will the elderly or disabled fear losing their freedom to move around. (3) A long drive in the dark will no longer be daunting. (3) There are no huge insurance premiums for young drivers. (4) Children, pedestrians and cyclists will feel that our roads are genuinely safe to use once again. (5) Road traffic deaths have reduced by two-thirds in the last 50 years, owing to better road and car design; the remaining death toll is primarily caused by human error. Self-driving cars will help eliminate those deaths and injuries. Already Volvo says that no-one should be killed or seriously injured in one of its cars by 2020.
So how will driverless cars change everyday life in our town? How can they have a major impact on town design or traffic and parking congestion? In fact the rapid growth in the use of mobile phone apps is the other part of the jigsaw that will drive the big societal change.
The UberCars app has rapidly become very popular with users worldwide (though less so with traditional taxi drivers). When you want a taxi, you set your destination on a phone app. The app knows where you are, and despatches a car. You are sent the driver's photo and car license (for your safety). At your destination you don't pay or tip the driver, as the system does this from the credit card on file. Finally the app asks you to give anonymous feedback about the driver and trip. Imagine how this new approach would be revolutionary when combined with self-driving cars!
Currently, many cars sit on the driveway most of their lives, depreciating heavily even when not being used. But if you could easily call for a car whenever you wanted, and pay for it only as you use it, it would work out very much cheaper for many car owners. Paying trip-by-trip would spread the costs more equitably and allow people to adopt a greener approach to transport.
So, the real change for our towns and cities comes from combining self-driving cars and mobile phone apps to book them. Anyone can have the ability to summon a self-driving car to collect them and ferry them to their destination - effectively having the use of a private car but on a ‘pay as you go' basis. This might be the real ‘modal shift from the private car' as we currently use them, and might even make a switch to cycling and walking safer, and so more attractive. This is much like the idea behind the ‘car pool', but outside a few small schemes in large cities, these have not really made much of an impact on car ownership. The ‘instant car pool' these combined technologies will bring will revolutionise things and will drive down the number of cars sitting idle on driveways and side roads every day.
There will be huge consequences. Fewer road traffic accidents and injuries (saving the country money on NHS and Fire & Rescue services); fewer privately-owned cars; car pools could really take off on a massive scale; fewer parking spaces needed in towns, offices, shopping centres, stations etc. as more and more customers arrive by self-driving car (the car would drop you off and go to its next customer). Less on-street car-parking would be needed, fewer front gardens turned into parking spaces.
It's also likely that many of these cars will be small-engined efficient town cars, or even electric, replacing many local journeys by older, larger and less energy efficient vehicles. It's not all positive, though: it could mean more short journeys in busy periods, as cars return empty after delivering someone to work. But then the more people using the systems, the more these return journeys will instead become paying journeys for the next passenger. Perhaps the biggest challenge for society will be what happens to the estimated 1.7 million people who currently earn a living from driving - taking their disposable income out of the economy might pose a bigger threat to town centre shops than internet shopping.
This future may be much closer than you would think possible. The UK government has authorised trials on the public roads from 2017. It seems likely self-driving cars will become commercially available before 2020: less than 4 years' time. One study suggests there will be 10 million sold worldwide by 2020, and result in 2,500 fewer deaths in the UK by 2030. The main delay seems the remaining legal and insurance issues, rather than the technology. It might be a further few years before they become common, but that's well within the town and street planning ‘window'. So we ought to be thinking now about how they might impact our current towns and streets in the future, and begin to plan accordingly.
Self-driving cars will be here soon. What is less certain is quite how they will displace existing cars and other forms of transport - and how quickly. What can we do to be ready for the changes they will bring? Can we be better prepared for once, rather than just trying to cope with the consequences?
Ipswich might even consider that with the traffic problems we already have, we might be an excellent choice as the location for a pilot for how this new technology should be introduced into a small city. For once, we might be ahead of the curve…
Martin & Cathy French