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Driverless cars - a tangible option for the future?

I enjoy driving my own car as much as anyone. I appreciate the convenience and the comfort. But I’ve started to question how long this will be an option in our city. In the Queen’s Speech, it was suggested that driverless cars will move from being science fiction fantasy to a tangible option for the future.

Driverless cars – or autonomous vehicles – are already being tested and used on the roads in parts of the United States. So how are we preparing for this future in Glasgow? For the Chamber and its members, it throws up a raft of complex propositions.

I was over in Brussels speaking about our great city at an Urban Land Institute event, a private think-tank looking at the creation of thriving and sustainable communities, and I heard Christopher Choa, the chair of the ULI infrastructure council, talking about transport innovation.

Using a satellite map of global points of light – the street-light orange sheen viewed from space - across Europe, Choa noted that the urban areas of light concentration, outside of London and Paris, are the Ruhr and Benelux. This light also emanates from the North-east of England and the Central Belt of Scotland. This is our massive road network.

Choa believes the biggest promise of driverless cars in our cities will be more space for people. He says that currently up to 30% of urban land is devoted to roadways and parking. In the US, this is 50%. He says that potentially 90% of that available road space could be turned into development land or public realm.

He says driverless cars will reduce the number of vehicles by a factor of ten, reducing overall travel times for everyone, as sensors and software allow cars to merge and cross seamlessly, using less road space. The unintended consequences could well have an impact on public transport, allowing people to hire and rent them for fractions of the day. We are also seeing a generation shift in the changing attitudes towards the ‘sharing’ economy. It seems that Millennials are more relaxed about hiring things – and this might spread to car ownership too.

He says the biggest gain will be in the reduction of car accidents. With 1.2 million people dying on the road worldwide each year, that would be a major achievement. He points to the public health benefits and car insurance premiums actually going down.

For Glasgow, you could argue an important factor is you don’t need to park a driverless car. It will be easy to bring the car to your door when you need it. Car parks will  be  redundant. Will driverless cars solve urban congestion or will people desert public transport for the increasing flexibility of an on-demand car? We don’t know. However, this is a debate we need in Glasgow – because it is a disruption that impacts on future infrastructure.

In Glasgow, a city that was quick to exploit the benefits of the motor car, we should be considering this possible future. The Future Cities Demonstrator programme has been divided into several strands of work and our universities are active in looking at transport. With a number of cities now trialling driverless cars, Glasgow needs thoughtful and advanced thinking about a future that is not far down the road.

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