Autonomous Vehicles – first in Paris, London or Dubai?

18 November 2019

18 November 2019

Where will we first see autonomous vehicles on the road? Autovista Group Chief Economist Christof Engelskirchen considers the likely locations and how soon

It is not a question whether autonomous vehicles will come but rather when and where. The initial hype has passed and the substantial challenges these vehicles bring are now recognised. Solutions do not exist for all of them yet, but the value at stake is high. Visiting the Self Driving Congress (SDC Dubai), which was organised by the Government of Dubai and the Roads & Transport Authority in October helped gain some new and grounding perspectives on the topic.

Dubai wants to transform 25% of its total transportation to autonomous model Level 4 by 2030. The #SDCDubai congress demonstrated what could be possible with determination and full alignment on the strategy. Dubai has established a seemingly ambitious target for anyone outside of the UAE, but it appears achievable in this monarchy.

Dr. Steven Shladover from the University of California Berkley talked about how required levels of safety are a societal decision, may differ by country, and define the technological needs. With the politics surrounding autonomous vehicles largely out of the way in Dubai, it is more of a technological challenge than anything else. A target of 10 years to improve sensors, implement 5G and powerful cybersecurity seems achievable.

Level 3 may become obsolete

Christoph Mentzler from the Southwest Research Institute gave a compelling overview of the technological challenges and observed that humans tend to trust well-functioning systems too quickly. Research suggests that autonomous systems will need up to five seconds to get attention back from drivers. Waymo confirmed this during a presentation at the #IAA2019 in September and that they are not working on Level 3 anymore. We should not expect to see Level 3 cars before the technological and safety challenges are solved for Level 4. We might never see them if the attention-grabbing challenge cannot be solved. A viable scenario would be that a Level 4 vehicle switches to Level 2 outside of the Level 4 area.

Newly-built areas

Rob Schebesch from Stantec talked about transportation being more exciting than ever and how much easier it is to move to self-driving in newly-built areas. Dubai seems to be the perfect place to demonstrate that self-driving can be implemented on a large scale in a megacity.

But there are important pre-conditions that are more easily met in newly-built areas or in Dubai than in other mega-cities:

  •  The sponsor of the whole initiative is the public transport authority, i.e. self-driving will become part of Dubai’s public-transport infrastructure;
  • Physically-separated lanes without other traffic will be established in Dubai, which also means that there are separate stations to get on and off; and
  • It will be ″people movers″ driving you around, small buses. In a driving competition at the event, Navya and Gaussin, both French companies, performed well and won.

Priority for Western cities

From various discussions I have had and witnessed during the past months with representatives from private companies and city planners in Europe, it is clear that self-driving cars will not suddenly swamp city centres like e-Scooters did (in some cities). At the IfA Automotive Summit 2019  Christoph Erdmenger, from the Ministry of Transport Baden-WÜrttemberg, spoke about the ″fourth industrial revolution″. He claimed that, if we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030, we will have to say goodbye to the one-size-fits-all vehicle that takes us to our job, into a city centre and our entire family to a beach holiday.

With more and more people moving into metropolitan areas, the regional Ministry of Transport is working on concepts focusing on doubling public transport capacity compared with today’s levels. Every third vehicle will need to drive CO2-neutrally, we will need to walk and cycle more. In order to supply the needed space, the number of vehicles driving in a city must decrease by one third.

Paris, London or Dubai

Approaches to self-driving vary greatly and need to be owned by public transport authorities. Dubai shows that the city must own the evolution from the current mobility scenario to a self-driving one. But this scenario may look different for Paris and London due to availability of space, societal preferences and the form of government.

What unites Paris and London is that space is limited so individual cars will have to be taken out of the equation and multi-modal mobility is required and their attractiveness needs to increase. A likely scenario is that self-driving vehicle infrastructure will be set up to connect park + ride facilities at the outskirts of cities with existing public-transport traffic hubs. Commuters could park their vehicles at park + ride facilities and take shuttles to move to the hubs and then enter the city centres via public transport. A long way to go but a scenario that would also address the feeling of being left out.