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Vehicle for change

July 25, 2017

By Scott Witchalls

Autonomous vehicles are already here. The technology is well developed and the concept no longer requires a great leap of imagination

The UK legal framework to allow driverless cars to operate on public roads is now in place, and pilot schemes have taken place in Milton Keynes, Coventry, Bristol and Greenwich. As such, substantial investment is flowing into the market, with the likes of Google, Apple and Uber set to compete with traditional auto brands.

Despite this, we’re a long way from seeing these vehicles cruising along our streets. Fundamental behavioural changes and a deviation from private car ownership to a shared ownership model is crucial. Technology evolves more rapidly than attitudes, but it is possible to forecast what the future could hold once this new form of transport becomes more widely accepted.

Once we start to see widespread adoption of driverless cars, then the effect on real estate will be huge—especially in terms of what we build and where we build it.

A change in attitudes

Owning can be a necessity. But, for the younger generation in particular, spending scarce disposable income on a depreciating asset is rarely a priority. The latest national travel trend data shows that car ownership and use is falling in real terms relative to population size and economic growth.

The car ownership model could be replaced by a mobility service contract, where an autonomous vehicle could be called up on demand in the same way as an Uber taxi. This concept also opens up a new world of travel options for those who don’t have access to a car or hold a driving licence.

Congestion has a significant negative economic and productivity impact. But if a car could pick you up and drop you off and attend to someone else’s journey afterwards without the need for a driver, the efficiency of the model is vastly improved, particularly if you are willing to share your journey with someone else. We already share journeys on public transport, yet are very reluctant to have strangers in our cars. This wouldn’t necessarily be a concern if we’re buying a mobility package rather than a vehicle. Without the need to control the vehicle, we can also expect a marked increase in both productive and leisure time during travel.

The impact of congestion on air quality could also be vastly improved, since all vehicle technologies are moving towards 'zero emission at source' models. Cleaner air lends itself to more high quality outdoor spaces. This brave new world also means that streets and accesses could be designed in different ways. Ugly signage, lighting, barriers, traffic signals and markings could be removed.

The end goal is an integrated, clean transport network, travelling autonomously, attending to transport needs through sophisticated communication and data processing: anyone can get anywhere in reasonable time and at reasonable cost.

The workplace of tomorrow

Providing car parking for a workforce is challenging. In a world with autonomous vehicles, land use planning will still be expected to focus high-density development in accessible places, but they will not require car parking in the vicinity. Similarly, for out-of-town employment, such as in business and industrial parks, the need for on-site car parking could be removed.

Residential revolution

Without private cars to cater for, housing developments will look quite different. Garages, driveways and communal parking areas will not be required and so houses will either be bigger or more densely clustered with more open space.

Towns and cities

It is difficult to see what use our existing multi-storey car parks will serve but it is easy to see what might be built in their place. What we expect to find in our town and city centres might also change, considering the nature of commerce and the evolution of our purchasing habits evolve.

Implications for industry

The haulage industry is anchored on the idea that a human driver can only drive continuously for a finite period of time. The time it takes for goods to get from A to B, and where A and B actually are geographically in the supply chain, is accordingly fixed. With goods travelling in autonomous vehicles, journey times could be reduced and/ or journeys will cover greater distances, meaning more capacity will be available, and storage and distribution facilities may be more concentrated in hubs and consolidation centres.

It is also clear that agriculture and construction will benefit massively from improved efficiency in methods, reduced waste and removing some of the cost of human labour.

Where will autonomous vehicles 'live'?

Of course, there will be a need to accommodate large numbers of vehicles on the road network, and a place to store them. Thought will need to be given to how/where they are serviced, repaired and fuelled/recharged, and how this will relate to our future infrastructure.

There could be a neat opportunity for the reuse of land, for example the large car parks found at airports. Whether or not reusing land in this way will cater sufficiently for the hubs that will likely be required, there is certainly an important emerging land use question to be discussed and associated value to capture.

In the short term

In terms of making the transition towards driverless cars, we can probably expect to see cities implementing driverless-only zones, along the lines of the low emission zones and congestion charging areas we are already familiar with. This process will assist in promoting the technology and the advantages that its adoption would entail. The short-term impact on real estate is likely to be minimal, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be planning for it now.

Strategic land schemes comprising many thousands of new homes will be built over the next 15-20 years. In this time frame, the autonomous vehicle landscape may be very different indeed and so introducing genuine flexibility in the planning system now will be crucial for capturing the benefits as they materialise. Local plans should be required to demonstrate how they are responding to these new opportunities.

This blog post originally featured in Estates Gazette and was co-authored by Alex Round is an associate and Beverley Firth, a partner, at Mills & Reeve.

  • Scott Witchalls

    Working on projects in both the UK and overseas, Scott develops and delivers transport plans for major sustainable and regeneration programs.

    Contact Scott
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