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Transport / Mass transit

How will cities be impacted by the first wave of autonomous cars?


In the future, everything about cars as we know them may change. Aviva is preparing for that future by conducting tests on connected and autonomous vehicle technologies through extensive real-world trials.

Imagine this scene: It’s the year 2040, and Tom’s home virtual personal assistant has summoned an autonomous car to his home in Edinburgh. He will be attending a meeting in London in a couple of hours. The autonomous car is taking him to a mobility hub, where he will board a pre-booked seat on a Hyperloop. Half an hour later he’ll arrive in London. Tom will walk the rest of the way, or he may even get into a shared shuttle to get to his ultimate destination.

There are incremental steps to get to this future – ten, twenty, and thirty steps along the way that are easier to imagine – and one step we can see happening in the future is fully autonomous vehicles. However, understanding the impact of these vehicles and how people might use them is a challenge. We know that cars with semi-autonomous features are available, but drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take control in all cases.  

Autonomous cars today

There are no autonomous vehicles currently available to buy. We haven’t reached the stage where a truly autonomous vehicle has been designed, tested, manufactured, approved, priced or marketed. Until that happens, along with the development of legislation and infrastructure, we will see trials aiming to find answers to the huge number of questions we all have. New ways of accessing transport are emerging and subscription services and shared mobility models mean private consumers may not be the car owners of the future. Fleet operators are more likely to purchase or lease autonomous vehicles.

There are vehicles being tested in a variety of situations around the world. Most notable is Waymo’s ‘robotaxi’ service in Phoenix, Arizona. The company has deployed self-driving cars onto public roads, aiming to integrate the service with a commercial ride-hailing network. There are also trials happening in the UK. In fact, Aviva is a Founder Member of the Smart Mobility Living Lab: London.

The Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMML), based in Greenwich, provides a real-life environment to test and evaluate new technology, including connected and autonomous vehicles. Along with Honda, BP, Centrica and Hastings Direct, we’re on a journey to answer the burning questions around the future of mobility. The autonomous vehicle trials will be taking place around Woolwich in London.

Autonomous cars will change cities

It’s hard to predict what will change in cities once fully autonomous cars become available, but I’ve had the luxury of being able to create personas and run them through a series of future scenarios for my job. Sometimes they seem far-fetched and technically improbable. More often than not, the scenarios are realistic – and when based on facts like environmental factors, technological innovation, legislation, and manufacturing plans and predictions – a picture of the future slowly emerges. One such scenario is the story of Tom’s morning I invited you to imagine above.

The real certainty for how cities will change is that public transport has to evolve dramatically and blend into a mixed mobility ecosystem. This should see fewer individual vehicles congesting our living spaces and more advanced shared systems, freeing up parking spaces. Oh, and of course: more trees!

The transition to autonomous cities

It’s not so much a question of ‘when’ cities become fully autonomous, but a question of how autonomous and connected services will become integrated into our cities – and how will they work seamlessly with people and businesses. Do we have a flexible infrastructure and are we receptive to the major transformation, disruption and cost that some of these changes will require?

Already, we’re seeing new buildings being built with the tech required for connected living, together with charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Scale this up to communal living spaces and mixed commercial properties and you start to see the challenges faced in planning such an environment. I’m certain though, the first thing we’ll notice about our cities is cleaner air. Beyond that, who knows?

I wouldn’t consider the evolution of mobility as a ‘change over’ to connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), more an adoption and integration of CAVs in certain aspects of life. Mobility is about moving people, goods and services and CAVs are a component of this. To get to the point of having CAVs working ubiquitously in a city environment, one has a multi-faceted set of impacts to address.

Some are positive and others less so. Imagine for example, if all taxis were robotaxis. Where would the former drivers work? If all connected vehicles were also able to predict their need for repair… and fix themselves. And what if cars cleaned themselves, and they never crashed into each other, accidents were a thing of the past, what impact would that have on society?

I’m asked when we’ll see autonomous vehicles in everyday life almost every day, but that’s a very hard question to answer. The adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles depends on the circumstances. Personal individual mobility and commercial industrial mobility will dramatically differ. The latter has already adopted autonomous vehicles over the last few decades, from the Docklands Light Railway to heavy industrial mining trucks. These don’t hit the headlines, but have been successfully used to improve movement, efficiency and safety.

So, we’re already starting to see autonomous vehicles in everyday life – they just aren’t the ones you may have noticed.

Andreas Mavroudis is Senior Mobility Futures Manager at Aviva.
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