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Mr. Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

The Future of Mobility

Transforming Cities

There’s bumper-to-bumper traffic on the multilane highways around Los Angeles. That’s because the city does not have a good local public transportation system. This scenario from the West Coast of the USA is also playing out in many other major cities all over the world.

Increasing traffic volume is creating problems in cities around the world, congestion, poor air quality and less productive economies. Connected autonomous vehicles with electric drives could offer a solution – if cities create the right conditions for their use and ensure they form complement strategies to increase walking and cycling and public transportation.

Few inventions have changed our lives as much as the automobile, which gave large segments of society personal mobility at an affordable price for the first time in history. However, the drawbacks of a world with some 1.2 billion vehicles are now becoming increasingly apparent, especially in cities, where cars and trucks take up a lot of space that could be used for other modes of transport, not to mention the construction of housing, commercial buildings, and green spaces. The huge number of vehicles in cities also leads to traffic jams that do a great deal of economic damage – after all, time is money. In London alone, the economic losses associated with traffic congestion are estimated to reach US $180 billion during the period 2014–2030. In addition to this they cause emissions, smog, and noise that urban residents have to deal with, and which they are beginning to protest against more and more frequently. Then there’s the fact that 1.25 million people die every year as a result of traffic accidents, many of which occur in cities and most of which are caused by human error.

This situation is not going to improve by itself. On the contrary, the trend toward urbanization continues unabated, which indicates that demand for personal mobility will increase significantly in major cities. What’s needed here are new traffic and transport concepts in which connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) could play a key role. CAVs operate without a human driver (see information box) and remain continually networked with one another and their environments. The Siemens study “Cities in the Driving Seat – Connected and Autonomous Vehicles in Urban Development” examines the potential benefits offered by CAVs, and the influence they might have on mobility in the future.

Today, mobility in metropolitan areas means smart connectivity between modes of transport – for the booming commercial transport sector too.

Fewer Traffic Jams and Lower Emissions

One thing is already clear: CAVs could enable more intelligent realtime traffic management and could therefore reduce traffic jams and congestion. Boston Consulting Group, for example, estimates that CAVs could reduce travel time in urban centers by 11%–33%. CAVs also make fewer mistakes than human drivers (which means fewer accidents) and don’t drive as aggressively as humans (which reduces emissions). They also open up completely new mobility possibilities for the elderly and disabled. “Blind and visually impaired people could benefit from travel options that were previously unimaginable,” says Sue Sharp from the Royal Society for Blind Children in the UK. “Imagine how liberating it would be for an 18-year-old blind man to be able to drive to meet his girlfriend instead of having his mother take him there.”

Technology alone will not be enough to make urban traffic more environmentally friendly. Cities themselves must take action.

At the same time, CAVs will be able to have the greatest possible positive effect only if they are used in combination with the second mobility megatrend: electric drive systems. “This is crucial for climate protection,” says Mark Watts, Executive Director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group initiative, which brings together 90 of the world’s largest cities. “Electrically powered autonomous vehicles could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in cities and help put an end to the air-quality crisis in many cities worldwide.” Electric vehicles could also become part of a smart energy structure by temporarily storing surplus electricity from wind and solar power facilities in their batteries, for example.

New Framework Conditions Needed

Nevertheless, technology alone will not be enough to make urban traffic more environmentally friendly and more tolerable for city residents. In other words, cities themselves must take action by establishing their own fleets of electric CAVs to set an example while at the same time establishing conditions that will induce the private sector to get involved. If such steps are not taken, private vehicle ownership could remain the dominant mobility model in the future, with all the associated consequences of congestion and scarce parking.  

There is a trend toward the decreasing use of private cars in many big cities – people are making more journeys using local public transportation, by bicycle or on foot.

CAVs could also begin competing with existing public transport systems. In order to prevent this from happening, new fee models could be introduced that use the number of vehicle occupants as the basis for fee calculations, for example. “CAVs are not a cure-all for lowering emissions or traffic volumes,” says Watts. “Nevertheless, in conjunction with the right strategy and appropriate regulations, they can definitely be part of the solution.”

If Autonomous and Connected vehicles simply replacing existing cars on the roads we ultimately change very little. An opportunity exists to reduce the number of vehicles in our cities and key to this will be shared mobility. As cars remain unoccupied around 95% of the time, changing the norm from owning to sharing a vehicle, could significantly improve the levels of traffic on our streets and make cars more productive. City governments could also think about how they incentivize the right sort of journey in the future, by pricing car journeys according to their destination and congestion levels. A journey to a transport hub could be much cheaper than one into the congested city center. Equally cities could offer new services that make accessing mass transit easier for people, such as on-demand autonomous shuttles, feeding their suburban transport hubs.

Reducing the number of vehicles would free up space in our cities for more productive purposes. Imagine having few car parks and more parks.   

Cities will therefore need to redefine the concept of efficient mobility in the future. For example, should comfort be evaluated solely from the perspective of the passengers in a vehicle, or should the point of view of pedestrians and cyclists be taken into account as well? Should the success of CAVs also be assessed on the basis of whether they offer new opportunities to people with low incomes and whose mobility is impaired, for example? Camilla Andersen from the Arup design firm has been asking such questions, and for her the answer is clear: “If you change the way you analyze things, you will change the results of your analysis.”

The ultimate goal is to make traffic more efficient, thus boosting sustainability and improving the quality of life.

Integrating CAVs into an Intelligent System

Siemens has been working for decades on intelligent traffic and transport control systems and has a wealth of experience with autonomous mobility solutions. As one of the ten biggest software companies in the world, the company can also look back on numerous projects in this field, including ones involving traffic simulation systems and route-planning apps that take into account various modes of transport. All of this knowledge is being incorporated into the Siemens Self Driving Vehicle Suite. This system consists of intelligent infrastructure and back-end microservices for things like traffic control, fleet management, and pricing. The Self Driving Vehicle Suite can integrate all types of CAVs and guarantees safe, efficient, and optimal trips.

If cities were to use such solutions in the future, CAVs would be able to fulfill their enormous potential to reduce traffic jams, lower emissions, and free up more space for people in urban areas. This potential should be taken literally. For example, if CAVs for public use were to be promoted in the New York metropolitan area, parking lots at train stations could be used to build an additional 240,000 apartment units by 2040.

Christian Buck
Picture credits: All Pictures Shutterstock