Typically talk of autonomous vehicles on Irish roads is commonly met with a wry smile, a raised eyebrow and comments such as “that’ll never happen”.
However, think of how connected and automated your own car already is at present. It started with cruise control then moved on to park assist, lane departure warnings and blind-spot monitoring. You may now have adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure communication. Gradually our cars are becoming ever more automated, connected and fuel efficient.
More than $50 billion (€42 billion) has been invested over the last five years in the development of self-driving technology, with in excess of 70 per cent of that investment coming from outside the automotive industry – from businesses like technology giants and specialists start-ups. A recent survey of Global Automotive Executives by KPMG found that over 85 per cent believe the digital ecosystem will generate higher revenues in the future for businesses than the actual hardware of the car itself.
So the day when driverless cars are on the streets in Ireland is not as futuristic or far fetched as some might think.
So what does it mean for Ireland’s infrastructure and transport planning? Should we act now, or wait and see how quickly these developments reach our shores?
A key reason for policymakers to prepare for the implications of autonomous vehicles is because the spatial planning and infrastructure investment decisions that we make today will determine development for decades to come.
Investment in infrastructure typically has a 30-50 year time horizon. Autonomous vehicles will be with us in that time frame. Yet we cannot stop investing as we need the road and rail infrastructure today. However, if we can anticipate and plan for a self-driving future today, we can better plan for the changes needed to key transport infrastructure in the future to allow for the integration and effects of self-driving vehicles.
Accuracy of steering
These vehicles will require, for example, changes to road infrastructure including on-road telematics, signage and road widths. Given the potential accuracy of steering in autonomous cars and their ability not to veer off a set course, the issue is arguably potential for narrower lanes on motorways, for example.
It will also affect business cases for investment, parking facilities and multimodal transport ticketing systems and will have implications for the location and development of homes and businesses.
The changes will also affect government revenues. At present the Government receives a significant exchequer benefit from excise duty on fuel, so a shift to electric autonomous vehicles would be a hole in tax revenues. Not to mention the impact of major car sharing initiatives, which could result in fewer new car sales, affecting tax revenues also.
Yet transport infrastructure even in an autonomous vehicle world still needs to be paid for: the issue facing many states is by whom and how? Authorities need to start thinking about how to recover the lost revenue, for example through different forms of transport-usage pricing.
The changeover to autonomous vehicles isn’t going to happen overnight, nor without a myriad of other public policy changes in place. Whether that is simple changes to legislation to allow prototype testing on public roads, changes to driver licensing requirements or changes to insurance requirements.
There is much to consider, especially around safety considerations of autonomous vehicles and security of such systems against cyberattacks.
The data generated by these vehicles also presents an interesting conundrum – again a topical issue at present. Autonomous vehicles will generate significant data on people movements. How do we ensure that people are comfortable for that data to be shared and does it have a value that could be monetised and for the benefit of whom?
Each country will have to consider its own approach to these issues. However by the very nature of transport, basic standards of interoperability will have to be put in place across countries and continents. This takes time. One only has to consider how long it has taken to reach a resolution on common standards for electronic tolling across Europe.
Ireland is behind the curve on taking action on what we need to do to adapt to this new technology and secure a share of additional economic activities. Countries such as Netherlands, Singapore, the US, Sweden and the UK were ranked in the top five in a KPMG study last year assessing the readiness of different jurisdictions to adapt to autonomous vehicles. The Republic has a lot of catching up to do.
We can consider potential scenarios and incorporate the impact of those into our future planning. What does that mean?
- We need to consider autonomous vehicles in the context of national and local transport strategies and spatial development plans to consider what-if scenarios and incorporate the ability to adapt and change into new developments.
- Embrace partnerships between public authorities and private sector partners, as Singapore is doing for example. Measures including removing regulatory barriers, establishment of a dedicated organisation within Government to support self-driving research and fund innovation should speed up developments that also comply with public policy objectives.
- Bring together all key stakeholders. We should recognise that this is not just about transport but also how we as citizens in our communities will live and work in the future. We will maximise the economic, environmental and road safety benefits if we engage our thinking as widely as possible about what an autonomous-vehicle future means for us.
Autonomous technology will really transform our lives, with many potential benefits. However planning is fundamental and we don’t want to be left behind.