WSP is contributing to the evolving global trend of automated vehicles and has been engaged by the RAC in Western Australia to undertake route assessments for their fully-automated driverless bus. 

The trial will assess how driverless buses, and automated vehicles in general, can be deployed onto local road networks in a staggered and safe manner. 

These works follow our regional role for Austroads, drafting guidance papers on the introduction of automated vehicles for road operators in Australia and New Zealand. Globally, WSP is encouraging public debate on automated vehicles and New Mobility.

The essential cycle of planning, design, construction and operation for infrastructure has not fundamentally changed since the post-war period. The project cycle for smaller, less complex projects in transport, water or power infrastructure typically takes place over a two-year window. For larger and more complex schemes, the cycle can be up to a couple of decades.

Many Possible Futures – Planning for Uncertainty 

Consider the impact of current or anticipated disruptive technology trends on our infrastructure networks. Much of the current debate focusses on the technology itself, and the immediate costs, benefits and risks it may present. 

When will battery technology become cost-effective enough for the domestic storage of rooftop solar energy? How will governments, councils, road operators, owners, manufacturers and the insurance industry address the legislative, safety and liability challenges presented by the operation of autonomous vehicles? 

The debate has merit, but we may be better advised to pursue a very different line of enquiry. An equally important discussion is yet to be aired around the potential disruptive impact of technology on the infrastructure planning cycle itself. 

What will the potential impact be, for example, when we combine the technology of fully autonomous electric vehicles with a service such as Uber?

Niche manufacturers such as Tesla already supply vehicles with a degree of autonomy in place. Other volume brands including Ford and Volvo are in a race to provide a fully autonomous, mass market passenger or freight vehicle by 2020 – hence the current focus from authorities and insurers. 

Underutilisation is the principal cause of inefficiency for private vehicles. A typical privately owned car in Australia spends only 3–6% of its time being driven (4-10 hours a week). It’s an enormously wasteful level of use for such a capital-intensive, depreciating asset. 

Future planning might see an autonomous, electric, Uber-like car spending 20 hours a day travelling around the city network, responding to a ride-hail system for pick up and drop off with minimal downtime for recharging and maintenance.

Wireless charging at stationary junctions and signals would provide an even greater utilisation rate of over 80%. pseudo-Ubers would master the algorithms and communications needed to perfect ridesharing. Autonomous carpooling would increase ride efficiency, particularly commuting rides, so multiple passengers could travel in a light vehicle without a driver. 

What impact will ride sharing technology have on public transport?

What impact is this likely to have on our infrastructure?

We may see: 

  • A rapid decrease in the volume of single-destination, single-driver vehicles travelling to employment hubs during peak hours, with a corresponding increase in return journeys as empty vehicles return to the suburbs to reload 
  • reduction in shopping-related private travel, as autonomous vehicles further reduce the cost of small-volume home-deliveries 
  • the end of taxi driving as a business 
  • a sharp decline in private car ownership levels, particularly in urban areas 
  • a significant change in car user demographics – if a driver’s licence is no longer required will children become, or the elderly remain, car users? Will disabled car users be more empowered?
  • the rise of a new industry dedicated to repurposing unused residential garages 
  • swathes of almost empty city centre car parks leading to repurposing and redevelopment opportunities 
  • fundamental changes to travel patterns, without the constraint of safe, secure, economical planning.

What impact would our pseudo-Uber ride sharing technology have on public transport systems such as buses? Depending on the individual travel requirements of each passenger, could buses move away from designated pick up and drop off locations and collect passengers solely on demand? What would the fundamental difference be between an ever-circulating autonomous taxi, owned and operated by car companies such as Ford, Volvo or even Yellow Cabs, and buses owned and operated by transport authorities or private operators? As part of a flexible and agile system you might simply stand outside your workplace, assuming you still occasionally travel to your workplace, and select the first reasonably-priced vehicle that offers to transport you home safely and quickly – and that could be an autonomous taxi, bus, uni-pod or rickshaw! 

Changing the Way We Plan Infrastructure

None of these observations or thoughts are new. The same medium-term ‘what-if’ scenarios are being considered in the context of water supply, waste water treatment, power generation, storage, distribution, and across many other industries. 

But what if demand does drastically alter or even cease to exist? By the time it is operational, will the infrastructure we are currently planning or designing be resilient enough to respond to demand? 

An arterial road upgrade, currently in its planning stage, may be designed by late 2017, procured by mid-2018 and completed by 2021-22. Will demand have altered so much that the forecasted congestion will have reduced, been diverted elsewhere or have been eliminated entirely? 

The key variable will be the rate of change and how quickly we, as users, adopt and embrace new technological advances. Will all urban dwellers respond equally positively to no longer needing to drive and own a car? Will our take-up rates be as rapid as our iPhone and Uber adoption, or will we experience a more gradual and considered rate of change over a period of 10 or 20 years? 

So how do we design resilient infrastructure for the future if we cannot answer all of these questions today? The traditional boundaries between planning, design and construction may need to blur and shift.

Current planning projects may need to consider a wider range of criteria and potential future scenarios. Designs may need to cater for a range of modes or outcomes. Infrastructure planning should perhaps continue in parallel with design so that, if and when data trends indicate a particular option is becoming more likely, the design can be altered to accommodate this development at a far later stage in the project than would currently be the case. 

Changing the Scope in Construction 

When it comes to the construction phase, should contracts be structured so the scope can be significantly varied later in a project’s development? Perhaps it should. If it emerges at construction phase that the business case for a project no longer stacks up, due to rapid and significant changes in demand, a loss of profit payment to the constructor might be more palatable to an enlightened owner than wasting ten times the amount on a ‘white-elephant’ piece of infrastructure. 

As we contemplate an exciting and challenging future for infrastructure planning, we must be aware of the intricacies and pay closer attention to evolving technologies – whether we are planners, engineers, scientists, accountants or lawyers. 

Developing a greater understanding of how emerging technology and changing consumer demand will impact on transport infrastructure planning is essential for designing and developing resilient and adaptable infrastructure, where flexibility and agility will be key to our future success.

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