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Self-driving vehicles will render transport landscape obsolete

Do we really need four new lanes blasting through quiet villages or city centres?

Of all the pending legislation to be announced by Government Ministers in 2019, up there on the list of least expected must be proposed new legal provisions to allow autonomous, self-driving cars to begin operation on Irish public roads.

However, there it is. Making room for driverless cars is firmly on Minister for Transport Shane Ross’s to-do list, contained in the almost comically entitled Road Traffic (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Miscellaneous provisions? That sounds like the Bill-making equivalent of what my mother used to call the “utility drawer” in the kitchen, a repository for everything from elastic bands, receipts, randomly sized nails and mousetraps.

Putting autonomous cars on the road indeed comes across as rather dramatically miscellaneous, given that such a move has hardly been publicly discussed at all. But now, testing will begin.

“This is a rapidly developing sector right across the globe, including in the EU, and it is important that we make the most of these developments for not just transport, but also the wider economy,” said Ross earlier this month. He added that there were “real opportunities to grow jobs, while also finding ways to make our roads safer and more efficient and even sustainable”.


The jobs part is indeed relevant. Ireland already has some major corporate engineering work happening in the autonomous vehicle area in the west, at University of Limerick's Lero software research centre, at a Jaguar Land Rover centre in Shannon, and at a Valeo-NUI Galway collaborative initiative in Tuam.

And yes, autonomous vehicles have been a fast-developing sector for several years now, with global investment jumping from $6 billion (€5.4 billion) in 2015 to more than $60 billion last year, according to But the initial breathless predictions for autonomous cars have not been fulfilled nearly as fast as proponents would have had us believe.

For example, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said (I know, it's always Elon Musk, saying something) that by summer of 2020, we'd see a million driverless "robotaxis" transporting us hither and thither. Uh, no. Waymo boss John Krafcik was stating "fully driverless cars are here" . . . in 2017. Not quite.

Pretty much all the companies working on driverless cars have backed away from predictions of just-around-the-corner autonomous personal vehicles, trucks or taxis. Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid has predicted fully autonomous personal cars won't arrive until the late 2020s, although most manufacturers are promising more limited deployments – cars with back-up safety drivers, or robotaxis operating on restricted routes – in the next five years.

Others are more conservative, suggesting the mid-2030s before we see driverless vehicles, maybe decades.

But 2035 is only 15 years from now. And as for "decades" – what if we say, two decades? Three decades? The M50 opened to traffic about two decades ago. Three decades ago, the Liberties was forever altered when houses were bulldozed and Patrick and Nicholas Streets were widened to accommodate more car traffic. One decade, even three, are the blink of an eye in terms of urban and rural planning.

So Ross is right to set in place legislation that enables the arrival of these vehicles for initial testing. And he is correct to highlight the likelihood of “more efficient and even sustainable” roads systems.

And yet where does this pending major transport transition feature in any current national or city plans for roads developments? Or in city planning? The huge Dublin BusConnects plan, which would widen roads and intersections from the inner city out to peripheral villages, altering communities forever, is still modelled on the kind of traffic-accommodating, personal car-centric model that destroyed part of the Liberties.

And as climate change demands a shift away from multiple car ownership towards public transport, car restrictions in city centres, car share, and the kind of on-demand transport autonomous vehicles will supply, do we really need four new lanes blasting through quiet villages or city centres? More motorways?

Ireland is not alone in mostly ignoring this looming shift. One large German study indicates that city planners there are not yet thinking extensively about the changed transport landscape that driverless cars will bring, and the implications for designing roads, intersections and parking, despite the country being home to several of the largest global automotive makers.

In Ireland, we’re still making plans with a mid-to-late 20th century mindset, imagining cityscapes, suburbs and national transport networks that will be dominated by personal cars.

Yet we are converging on a future in which autonomous vehicle developments and environmental mandates make this unlikely. Following Ross’s initial move on driverless vehicles, planners and politicians need to rethink decisions to dramatically alter cityscapes and landscapes to facilitate presumptions that already – never mind in coming decades – are growing obsolete.