Two minute read on five thoughts from Cov on CAVs

Our smart futures strategy group met at the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick yesterday to find out more about Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs). Here’s five things I learned.

  1. The UK does joined up industrial strategy when it wants to. There’s some serious money going into CAV development and problem solving (including a big expansion of the CAV facility at the Uni of Warwick).There’s also a serious ambition to make the UK a world leader (headquartered in the West Midlands) based on a less silo’d and more cooperative approach than other nations which embraces testing, law and ethics, software and hardware. This is not a drill.
  2. There is no shortage of problems to crack and there’s no guarantees that enough of them are soluable any time soon. There’s lots of obvious ones about speed and safety but there’s plenty of less obvious ones too. For example, say the phrase autonomous vehicles and the associated image is often of someone reading a book in what used to be the driving seat. Yet I’m not the only one who can’t read a book as a passenger in a car, for more than thirty seconds without getting motion sickness. Good luck with sorting that conundrum out.
  3. The number one obsession on CAVs is safety. Compare and contrast with the relative apathy that exists around tackling the carnage currently taking place on the roads. Yet existing road vehicles are already becoming incrementally more connected and intelligent. And life saving technology like speed limiters is already available. Could some of the focus on safety which applies to future CAVs not filter through to present day connected vehicles? Or does the conventional car’s role in wider culture wars make that too hard? But for how much longer given how cars are changing and the scale of the suffering that car crashes cause?
  4. There’s a nagging feeling that for many politicians at least CAVs are about taking the current format for cars on the current format for roads – and making the cars autonomous. And that’s it – job done. But that doesn’t fit with the way streets are changing. In particular the way in which, in city centres, at least space for vehicles is being reduced in favour of space for people. Or initiatives like healthy streets which London is now seeking to make part of the DNA of transport planning in the capital. In fact there’s no real interaction at all between the thinking around the healthy streets / better places agenda and the CAVs agenda. Indeed if you want CAVs quick and you don’t want the accidents then bringing back pedestrian guardrails and criminalising jaywalking could help. But that’s not the kind of spaces between buildings that people want anymore. On the other hand you could see electric CAVs for logistics deliveries and street cleaning that could fit with the healthy streets / better places agenda…as well as being easier to achieve than a go anywhere autonomous saloon car.
  5. More widely does the CAV debate need some re-framing around what is the problem that CAVs are trying to fix, in what circumstances and on what kind of time frame? For example you could envisage CAVs platooning on motorways or shuttling in urban areas on fixed routes for particular purposes (such as hospitals, universities), or to cleaning the surface of a pedestrianised area than you could see the benefits of remaking an entire city’s streets around the need to make the considerable difficulties of go anywhere CAV saloon cars a little easier.

All food for thought for a project we will be initiating soon on issues and options for cities on CAVs. Where we will focus not on the tech per se but on what are the implications for the places that cities want to be of CAVs, what are the options, and how are cities in the UK and the wider world responding so far.

This is the sound of the suburbs

Nipped up to Walthamstow between London meetings to check out the mini-Holland last week. Here’s a few thoughts that flickered around my brain as I  wondered around in a semi-random way. 

Firstly, do these things at scale and start with entry and exit treatments. So it’s not as if all of the area’s suburban streets  are now things of beauty – with elegant blockwork and planters worthy of the Dutch masters. Many are as scruffy and scuffed as they were before. But the entry and exit to these former suburban cut throughs has been treated to damn, slow, and channel the flow of traffic. Instead of being culverts for distracting traffic the streets are now more like linked ponds for traffic. More reflective and calm. And also creating a sense of expectation for what could follow later in terms of their beautification and socialisation.

Secondly, there’s all sorts of interesting things going on out there which is changing cities (or London at least) from being predominantly a 9-5 hub and spoke, city and suburb city place into somewhere where new geographies of transport, lifestyle and economies are forming. For example in Walthamstow it was noticeable that hipsterification is starting to come to the suburbs – free book exchange boxes by the front gate, and cycle parking pods in former car parking places alongside house restorations which echo the brownstones of Brooklyn rather than the values of Metroland,

Whilst central London’s streets risk becoming a Prets / hotel / chain / luxury flats / chain store (and repeat) kind of place  – is there an argument now that its the sub-centres and the hipper suburbs that are now more interesting places to hang out with their hand crafted and indie high streets? And more interesting, and carefully curated, places to work too –  as fewer people work five days in the office and spend more time in their own house and hood. Indeed some are now saying that in London Wednesday is the new Monday (the day in which most people are in the office) and Thursday is the new Friday (because people don’t work, or work from home,  on Friday). And it’s not only for work that people don’t have to move so far. As you can watch anything you like on your own screen and buy anything you want and have it delivered – why go out so much? And the figures show that people aren’t going out as much for shopping and leisure. But if you do go out far better orbital public transport links (like the London Overground), well connected high end malls in the sub centres (like the Westfields) and Uber also start to shift the balance away from the domination of radial travel.  

All interesting stuff – and perhaps after we have finished our current research into what transport policy can do for urban towns we should turn our attention to the suburbs.