How should local authorities prepare for the arrival of CAVs?

There is no question that cars are getting smarter but the real question is how smart can they get and when is this likely to happen? Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) will transform how we use transport, how vehicles interact with each other and how they interact with ‘network operators’ or ‘infrastructure.

Vehicles and highways are getting smarter and the two are interacting with each other more and more. But an important point to note is the distinction between connected and autonomous vehicles. There are already a lot of vehicles operating on UK roads that are connected and some are even demonstrating semi-autonomous capability but it’s the seamless connection between the two, on the same road network, using the same infrastructure that poses the greatest opportunity and challenge for local councils.

Historically, roadside infrastructure has been fairly ‘dumb’. A junction would iterate through its cycle: green-amber-red-amber-green and so on, day after day. The addition of inductive loops and controllers at junctions allowed these locations to have some ‘awareness’ of the traffic approaching them and as a result they started to be able to modify their cycles in response to demand.

Urban Traffic Management and Control (UTMC) began in the late 1990s and is now the norm for most large conurbations. This means that a central control room has the ability to know the current state of all the main roads in an area and also to remotely update traffic timings to deal with the changing state of the roads.

Until now the main way in which a control room has interacted with vehicles is via drivers by, for example, sending messages to Variable Message Signs (VMS). This is changing, as more and more data about current traffic speeds is being harvested either through telematics units, mobile phones or Automatic Number Plate Recognition. This trend is likely to accelerate such that vehicle manufacturers, data aggregators and network operators have an increasingly detailed picture of the state of the highway network.

It is likely that drivers and vehicles will increasingly have much more accurate knowledge of the state of the road ahead of them, allowing them to reroute in real time but much more intelligently than a current in-vehicle sat-nav might (i.e. by sending vehicles over 7.5 tons one way and lighter/smaller vehicles in another). This poses the question: what will be the role of network operators such as local councils in the future be and how will we ‘manage’ traffic in a tangible way?

Two visions are possible: one ‘laissez faire’ scenario would see drivers and vehicle manufacturers leading the way in terms of choosing how to use data to maximise benefits to the occupiers of the vehicles; another more ‘interventionist’ approach could see network operators changing parameters (such as speed limits and priorities) in real time such that the road network as a whole runs more smoothly, reducing the feeling of driving between semi-urban (less congested) and urban (more congested) roads since the traffic volume ‘feels’ the same . The latter vision is more like an air traffic control scenario where the control centre knows about the location and movement of every vehicle in real time and can issue instructions about what it should do next.

How much control network operators will have in the future is a huge, complex and ethically-charged question. In order for these types of scenarios to become possible there will be a need for standard communication protocols, so that every vehicle can communicate unambiguously with the control centre, in a secure way.

Could vehicles in future be required to have a certain level of connectivity (and autonomy) before being allowed to enter certain areas? Who will control or prescribe how the vehicle operates within this ‘zone’? Could there be CAV-only lanes or CAV-only districts? Of course, the issue of handover is key to exploring this as well as the transition phase between standard driven vehicles and mainstream CAVs.

It is likely that different countries, different states and different cities will implement regimes that address their geographic needs, capability and capacity. Some – Singapore seems a possible candidate – may be more comfortable with fast implementation of compulsory standards. Others regions may take a more libertarian approach considering that intervening in a person’s right to travel where they want when they want is not acceptable and in these types of areas it is likely that CAV systems would be optional and so take up slower.

What is clear is that local authorities are not currently geared up to manage an ‘air traffic control’ level of intervention. If this is the way CAVs develop, then there will be a need for a large amount of coordination and investment in infrastructure to ensure that we are ready for the advent of mass CAV based transport. There could be huge benefits from these types of investments and they could have major impacts on how our urban landscape looks, feels and is managed.

Ultimately, the golden thread alludes to an increase in productivity (GVA), creation of new jobs and attracting inward investment, since people and businesses are able to move and work in a more fluid and easier way. We also hope through our involvement in Venturer, the Bristol/South Gloucestershire region becomes the UK leader in CAV R&D. Our soon to be published economic impact study aims to demonstrate how we might achieve this.

Co-authored by South Gloucestershire Council and Bristol City Council