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.