As electric vehicles gain ground and as autonomous vehicles loom on the horizon, there are opportunities as well as challenges. A bit like Brexit, the devil is in the detail when it comes to the implications of new models of mobility. There are revenue, infrastructure, legal, insurance and ethical implications.

EVs and MaaS – hitting government coffers

For EVs, while much of the debate has been about electricity demand and load balancing, there is an increasing awareness of the impact on government coffers. In the UK, fuel duty is currently levied at a flat rate of 57.95p per litre for both petrol and diesel, while VAT at 20% is then charged on both the product price and the duty, with car tax on top of this.

Industry experts believe the only way to go will be road charges to offset the major loss of revenue to governments. At the recent Intelligent Transport Conference in London, this point was repeated by a succession of speakers and panelists.

However, particularly in those countries where road charging isn’t a traditional model, it is a hot potato that few politicians will want to grasp. If industry estimates are correct, car ownership in general is likely to fall steeply in the next 15 years. So one way or another, revenue will need to be raised by other means (it is also, of course, a major challenge for car manufacturers – makers of AVs will still want to sell or lease as many AVs as possible).

More broadly, there are potential cost implications of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), generally understood to mean a platform that gives passengers the best independent information about their journey options – cost, journey time, delays etc – and a single point of pricing and ticketing.

A key benefit of this should be cost savings for customers, by providing price transparency and alternatives (for some of the commonest underground journeys in London, for instance, it is quicker to walk). However, “revenue shortfalls in public transport at the moment are a really bad thing”, pointed out Leon Daniels, former MD for surface transport at Transport for London (TfL) and now an independent consultant.

Of course, by moving more people to walking and cycling, there is a major public health benefit, which has significant cost benefits for health and social services but the siloed nature of national and local government planning and budgets means these dots are unlikely to be joined up. The only transport consideration for many new housing developments is how many spaces there are to park cars.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

EV car sharing, Milan

In the UK, the cost of using public transport continues to rise at a greater rate than the cost of car use each year, with UK consumers braced once more for train fare rises in January.

There are 3000 fewer bus routes in the UK now than in 2015 and councils across the country are struggling to retain subsidies for rural networks. Surely the cost implications of increased isolation and car use outweigh the savings and more than justify investment in public transport. Perversely, more car miles has a positive effect on GDP.

In fact, in many cities, the dots are not even joined up across different modes of transport, with a lack of integrated transport authorities. Most cities still have a “phenomenally high reliance on cars”, pointed out Daniels, no integrated ticketing system and very poor public transport.

For every Helsinki, with its ambitious MaaS plans as it seeks to remove all cars by 2050, there are many other cities that are nowhere close to even the vision, let alone delivery. This is more likely to be due to lack of budgets, lack of integrated planning, poor leadership and challenges retrofitting existing urban landscapes than agreement with Elon Musk that, as the Tesla founder recently told a conference, “public transport is painful, it sucks”.

What about AVs?

How will AVs fit into the mix, with the pace of development here suggesting that their arrival is much closer than many would have predicted even a year or so back? This might be initially for “last mile” links to existing transport hubs or in “greenfield’ smart city initiatives, such as Sidewalk Toronto, the joint scheme by Waterfront Toronto and Google parent Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs.

As KPMG states in its Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, “the spatial planning and infrastructure investment decisions that we make today will determine the development of our countries and cities for decades. If we anticipate an AV future today, we can avoid wasting taxpayers’ money on investments that may soon prove obsolete, or worse frustrate the realisation of AV benefits.”

How can governments ensure that AVs are safe, both mechanically but also in terms of cybersecurity? Who owns the data that will be generated and what will be the licensing implications – will driving licences even be needed any more? Vehicle insurance will need to adapt, including working out who is responsible for a driverless vehicle’s actions. This is aside from the potentially huge societal challenge of unemployment as a result of AVs decimating some sectors.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Graffiti in Rome – a citizen call for change!

KPMG states: “Road traffic regulations, designed for use by humans, will ultimately be replaced by protocols” such as determining priority at junctions and giving way to emergency vehicles. A traffic jam of AVs is still a traffic jam, even if it is a greener, cleaner one.

As Lilian Greenwood MP, chair of the UK’s Transport Select Committee, recently stated, there needs to be a focus now on the deployment and acceptance of AVs, not leaving planning until they are upon us.

As well as the infrastructure requirements of AVs, ethical questions are now being aired. As Daniels pointed out, currently vehicles driven by humans kill four to five people per day in the UK. “Autonomous vehicles will be much safer but they won’t be perfect. Society tolerates 1500 deaths per year by humans, will it tolerate 200 deaths by systems?”

When it comes down to it, whether combustion engine, EV, AV, pedal power or other, the problem in all cities in the world is how to allocate the space between the buildings, says Matthew Hudson, head of strategy, technology and data at TfL.

This makes for very difficult political decisions – “political suicide sometimes”, he says – and certainly road charging as a strategic policy will be something that most politicians will want to kick into the long grass for as long as possible. The deliberate downgrading of Utrecht’s inner ring-road shows how citizens can be won over with a scheme that, when first announced, looked as though it could fall into the “political suicide” category – click here to read about this.

Conclusion – Citizen involvement

Indeed, where are citizens in all of this? The transport sector is typically very poor at involving people in planning. There is often an assumption that the transport sector knows what people want – whether HS2, a new road, public transport timetable changes and so on.

Transport decisions seem like something that is done to people, not with them, and technology – most clearly the combustion engine – has been the lead consideration, not what’s best for communities. AVs, by virtue of needing integration and detailed planning across transport, energy and ICT could, once more, become a tech-oriented surge that leaves people behind. “Cities are made up of human interactions, this shouldn’t be forgotten,” says Arnd Baetzner, Mobility Cooperative Switzerland director. “Concrete is very difficult to reverse.”

AVs could be a chance to remedy the lack of citizen involvement, which in turn could soften some of the bigger resultant societal upheaval, but the conversations need to start now before the headlong rush begins.