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Experts: It takes more planning to reap benefits of self-driving cars

Photo: cowi

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​Are town planners and policy-makers taking account of self-driving cars in planning the cities of the future?  “Not at all,” was one of the answers that COWI picked up when it asked the question at a recent breakfast forum in Oslo.

​Self-driving cars could make it more lucrative to own a private car than it is today. Worst case, this could happen at the expense of public transport, according to Bernt Sverre Mehammer, senior consultant for sustainable urban development at COWI​.

“Self-driving cars have a number of obvious advantages which could easily outweigh the fact that the total costs per car journey will be higher than before. This could entice more people away from today’s public transport provision to the driverless model and increase car traffic,” Mehammer said at a recent ‘Byfrokost’ forum at COWI’s office in Oslo on the subject of self-driving cars and the paradigm shift in town planning.

Need to take account of self-driving cars now

The question is how to exploit the benefits of self-driving cars without impacting underground systems, buses and trams.

“Speed restrictions in towns will be very important, as self-driving cars will never exceed the speed limit. Self-driving cars should be an extension of – and enabler for – public transport,” says Mehammer.
He adds that policy decisions need to be in place before self-driving cars come onto our roads. Once they are in full operation, it will be much harder to change patterns of use.

“If we can manage this, self-driving cars could work really well, but if we let the market direct things, it could go very wrong,” says Mehammer.

Not in the politicians’ plans at all

But are town planners and policy-makers actually considering self-driving cars in their urban planning? “Not at all,” answered Andreas Halse from the Public Transport and Environmental Committee for the City of Oslo.

“I don’t think there is a single municipal plan in Norway – or at the national level for that matter – which takes account of this.”

He outlines two possible future scenarios. One in which public transport is out-competed, public-sector investments are downgraded, and the volume of cars in our towns increases dramatically. In the second scenario, driverless cars are a tool for urbanisation and improved city life, because the parking problem disappears and the cars are far more efficient and take up less space.

If the latter scenario becomes a reality, he highlights the challenge of financing road improvement projects.

Oslo takes in NOK 450 million in parking charges every year, and this money could disappear with the arrival of self-driving cars, if we do not take account of this in long-term planning of municipal budgets. On the other hand, if smart mobility solutions bring about fewer cars on the roads or exploit the capacity much better, we could be spending huge sums on road improvements that have no benefit,” says Halse.

Ruter welcomes driverless technology

Endre Angelvik, IT Director at Ruter, the overall public transport authority for Oslo and Akershus, says it is following the development of autonomous vehicles closely.

“Travel options for individuals and for our customers have to work in such a way that we can live our lives to the full, so we have to make use of the best technology available at any given time.”

But will the autonomous vehicles compete with or enhance today’s systems at Ruter?

“Rather than autonomous vehicles competing with public transport, I think that parts of the driverless technology will be incorporated into our systems. The politicians in Oslo have high ambitions to create a greener city. Driverless technology can help to realise these ambitions and deliver a level of mobility that could allow us to do without private cars."

“It’s all about the will to generate change. When we can make customers’ lives both easier and greener, it will start to get exciting,” says Endre Angelvik.

LAST UPDATED: 06.10.2017