Cllr Tom Bell is a councillor in Southampton. He has a background in patent law and is currently a cybersecurity consultant for a Hampshire-based research company.
In certain corners of the environmental lobby, the domain of sustainable transport refers almost exclusively to expanding cycling and public transport infrastructure. However, with the formation of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) – a new policy unit for providing co-ordination across departments – the government is accelerating the rollout of autonomous vehicles (AVs), and local Councils have a vital role to play.
As Conservatives, providing choice is one of our primary goals when shaping priorities for transport infrastructure. That’s why I’ve been supportive of the government’s trial of e-scooters across many parts of the country. As this technology has emerged, bringing with it a proven demand, it is right that we are facilitating the legal rollout of e-scooters for hire. Especially as many of our newly installed cycle lanes are otherwise barely used. However, at present, the world is also witnessing the early stages of a comprehensive transformation of the automotive industry.
The UK’s automotive sector is still one of our economy’s most prized assets, employing over 800,000 people. As the innovation in this sector advances, the CCAV has identified that autonomous driving is a critical capability which can enable us to maintain the competitiveness of the UK automotive sector and indeed represents an opportunity to expand our automotive exports. Yet the size of that opportunity is largely dependent on how ambitious we are in accelerating the AV transition through action now. Although, according to McKinsey, the widespread adoption of fully autonomous vehicles is not expected until around 2030, there are already tens of thousands of cars on UK roads capable of full self-driving, many of which use partial autonomous driving (such as Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ mode) on a regular basis.
SAE International published details of their six “Levels of Driving Automation” which describe different types of maturity of autonomous driving capability. They range from adaptive cruise control and lane steering, all the way to full autonomy (without the need for a human driver at all). Fully autonomous driving is not currently permitted on public roads without a driver sitting behind the wheel, yet given the improvements in safety, energy-efficiency, emissions, convenience, comfort and cost which AVs provide, they soon will be.
The vital role of Local Authorities
Today’s road networks were built exclusively for human drivers. Although AVs are already safer than the average human driver, even on existing roads, the rollout of AVs can be greatly assisted through a number of local services, including live traffic updates and reliable data from smart transport infrastructure, such as on traffic light signalling, speed limits and lane closures. Further, the quality of the AV experience can be enhanced considerably through improved road infrastructure, such as smoother roads, passenger drop-off points and clear signage and road layouts. What is it that all these features have in common? They’re all under the responsibility of the Local Authority.
Local Councils across the UK have the opportunity to champion their local communities by laying the foundations early for the adoption of autonomous vehicles. As the LGA’s report on connect vehicles identifies, the policy of Councils will need to keep pace with technological advances to ensure that communities benefit from these opportunities and remain can competitive. Alongside permissive regulations from government, Councillors can provide a tangible boost to their local economies by beckoning the clean vehicle transformation, spearheaded by autonomous vehicle infrastructure.
Unfortunately, it is generally only larger cities like London and Manchester, which are particularly proactive in preparing for AVs. However, it is actually those in smaller cities, towns and rural communities who stand to gain the most from AVs. For those who rely on public transport, journey times are far greater for those in rural areas than in cities and first/last-mile journeys remain a considerable challenge. As such, it is important that planners right across the country make early preparations to facilitate the roll-out of AVs.
In addition to the specific challenges mentioned above, there are also implications for parking strategies and revenue-generation, for local authorities to grapple with. For example, autonomous vehicles will reduce the need for city-centre parking as fewer people will need to own their own vehicles. In time, autonomous vehicles will substantially eliminate parking fees, illegal parking fines, emissions-testing, and various traffic violations. Although this will free up Council time for more productive pursuits and free up urban land for development, it will also lead to a considerable loss of income for most Local Authorities who will need to consider how to compensate for that.
The future of cars is clean
In an attempt to reduce emissions, many local authorities, including the Labour-run Council in Southampton where I serve, have been excessively replacing valuable space on roads with under-used cycle lanes. Not only have these had a negligible impact on levels of cycling, they have often increased peak-time congestion, slowing traffic and – ironically – have in many cases lead to more pollution.
While well-intentioned, this is worryingly short-sighted. Within the space of just a few short years, most cars will no longer be dirty, polluting machines with a bad reputation. They will be one of the cleanest, safest and most convenient sustainable transport options available. Rather than being short-sighted enough to replace traffic lanes with cycle or bus lanes, we need local authorities which are prepared to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and specifically autonomous vehicles.
I would encourage all Councils to express their support for the ambitions of the CCAV and to implement an effective autonomous vehicle strategy to help make our roads and supporting infrastructure ready for autonomous transport.
It is in the best interests of us all and represents a way to more rapidly adopt clean personal transportation, whilst also improving safety, cost and convenience. Who said you can’t have your cake and eat it?