The chairman of transport design agency PriestmanGoode outlines his concerns about the potential applications of autonomous vehicles.
What are your key concerns about the current vision for an autonomous driving future?
Today in the rush hour people rush to work in their vehicles and then rush home from work and park them. With autonomous vehicles, the dream is that you will be dropped off from work and your vehicle will go and do something else, such as pick up your washing. But this is problematic – you’re just going to end up with cities full of traffic jams of cars with nobody in them. Until you get rid of the last human-operated car, you won’t be able to coordinate effectively. There is going to be a long transition period. When you introduce an old railway vehicle onto a railway line, it slows down the whole network because if it stays longer at a station, it slows down every other train on the network. The same will happen with cars.
I think the first driverless innovations will be on motorways because that’s a slightly more controlled environment, and you can start to have dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles. In inner cities, however, it gets very complicated – you're up against human nature.
Autonomous vehicles will appear on the streets quite quickly, but whether they make anything more efficient is another matter. [PriestmanGoode’s office] is on Great Portland Street in central London. If a client turns up in the future in an autonomous vehicle and he can’t find a parking space, he'll just send the car round the block 10 times. As soon as you have driverless cars, there'll be a sort of ‘dodge the traffic warden’ app, where your car can just hang around on a street corner, and just before the traffic warden is about to issue a ticket, it'll nip off. It'll be great fun, and it's humorous, but why pay for a parking space any more, because you can just keep the car driving?
You're just going to end up with cities full of traffic jams of cars with nobody in them. Until you get rid of the last human-operated car you won’t be able to coordinate effectively.
How will car design have to change to address these shifts?
Vehicles are not designed to car share. They’re for individual ownership. You car share, and you end up sitting on a sofa with a stranger. If we were to design a car share car, we'd design it like an aircraft, with privacy, so you could talk to the person next to you if you wanted to, but otherwise it would be more like a kind of public transport. So there are massive areas of design that will start to make people move away from individual vehicles.
I was in Beijing last week and the skies were clear. They're blue and it's the first time, and everyone's thinking: ‘Isn't this amazing?’ It's because they've stopped all the coal-fired power stations, and they've reduced the amount of diesel-emitting lorries and trucks, and it's worked. It is possible to do if we move away from the concept of an individual vehicle with just one person in it.
Is the question of changing attitudes towards ownership something car-makers are increasingly going to have to address?
I think the car industry has to look at ownership. Many of the young designers in my office don’t have a driver’s licence. Okay, we live in one of the biggest cities in the world, but why would you want a car when you can use Uber and you don't have to worry about having a drink at night and going to parties. Then there is the issue of cost, which I think is one of the big things that the car industry tries to suppress. So yes, I think the industry is going in the right direction, but it still doesn't address how individual people are still taking up a lot of space on the road. Driverless cars, or being able to let someone else use a car, won't solve that problem. The biggest issues in cities are pollution and congestion.
What qualitative difference do you think autonomous cars will have on the way we think about transport?
Every car ad boasts that the vehicle can go from 0–60mph in such and such a time, but the reality is being stuck in a traffic jam. But if you design things in a way that if you're not in a rush you can take the slow lane rather than the fast lane, you can enjoy the moment. If we gain more leisure time, travel and transport could become a more enjoyable part of life, just as people take canal trips as a holiday. There is this complete obsession with speed and time when really, if you left about an hour later in rush hour, you’d probably save yourself half an hour. Take it easy. I think that's quite an interesting idea, particularly with the ageing demographic. Take the slow road and it becomes an enjoyable moment.
This is where an important link between health and mobility starts to develop. If people walked more, if you encouraged people to walk longer distances or cycle longer distances to a Metro station, then you wouldn't”t have to build as many Metro stations. Then the whole system would become more effective and more efficient because trains wouldn’t have to stop as often, but people would be healthier. I think issues such as loneliness and health will increasingly be looked at in relation to mobility.