Policy Briefing: What planners need to know about driverless cars

Planners need to start preparing now for the future impacts of autonomous vehicles, Matthew White suggests.

Driverless technology: chancellor wants to have “fully driverless cars” in use by 202
Driverless technology: chancellor wants to have “fully driverless cars” in use by 202

Q What support is the government and the private sector providing for driverless car technology?

A In 2015, the government published a code of practice for testing automated vehicle technologies and in 2016 it made £100million available for the creation of test locations. Car manufacturers are now beginning on-road trials. The Royal Borough of Greenwich has been at the forefront with its government-backed Greenwich Automated Transport Environment (GATEway) open public trial on the Greenwich Peninsula. In his Autumn Budget, chancellor Philip Hammond announced a step-up in support for driverless vehicles, but details are yet to be provided.

Q Is there any evidence that driverless cars will become widespread on UK roads?

A The chancellor wants to have "fully driverless cars" in use by 2021. But even the most optimistic published timelines suggest that fully autonomous vehicles will not emerge before 2030. Their success will depend largely on whether the technology is trusted by the public. UK regulation has so far focused on product liability and insurance issues, with the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill currently passing through Parliament set to introduce a new insurance framework. Resolving road safety and cybersecurity concerns remains a key issue.

Q What key planning and development issues does the spread of driverless cars raise?

A Significant infrastructure investment is required. Provision for 5G data networks in city centres and on major transport routes is essential to ensure that vehicles can accurately interpret the built environment and communicate with each other. Given that driverless cars will also be electric, enhancement of the grid and rapid charging facilities are also necessary. Many planning authorities already require new developments to incorporate vehicle-charging points. The new draft London Plan, for example, requires 20 per cent of residential parking spaces to have active charging facilities.

Q How could the rise of driverless cars impact on local authority planners?

A Planning applications and local plans with a horizon of five years or more will need to take autonomous vehicle technology into account. A likely move away from car ownership and the need for on-site parking presents opportunities to increase development densities, while more efficient road use and narrower lanes will release space for pedestrian and cycling routes, public open space and green infrastructure. Highway design policies face radical changes. Government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission has announced a competition to see how the latest technology can be applied to road design. Employment policies will need to address the loss of driving-related jobs.

Q What particular implications does it present to developers?

A Parking provision within new developments should be flexible to allow it to be repurposed if off-site parking becomes commonplace. The provision of drop-off bays outside buildings will become key. The importance of developing near public transport hubs may diminish in the longer term, with autonomous vehicles able to provide efficient mass transit services across a dispersed area. If housing and employment space no longer needs to be in town centres, it could result in a dramatic reassessment of property values. Developers of logistics hubs, large remote car parks and repair and servicing facilities for autonomous vehicles can expect to see future growth.

Q Should planners prepare for the impact of driverless cars now?

A Our towns and cities are planned around roads. Autonomous technology will not only change the way we travel, it will change the face of real estate. It will provide planners with an opportunity to improve road safety, reduce congestion and tackle poor air quality. But these benefits could be offset by more cars on our roads, cybersecurity threats and job losses if the introduction of driverless cars is not carefully managed, so planning needs to begin now.

Matthew White is a partner and UK head of planning at Herbert Smith Freehills and a member of the firm’s connected and autonomous vehicles group

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