Self-driving vehicles set to revolutionize urban mobility

The development of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could make the urban environment greener and more livable and help support sustainable transportation systems. But how the technology plays out will depend on the characteristics of each city and its mobility ecosystem, according to a new report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge negative impact on urban mobility right now, and is likely to favor private forms of transportation such as cars and bikes over shared mobility for the next 12 to 18 months, many cities will embrace shared AVs in the long term because these vehicles can alleviate perennial problems such as congestion, air pollution, and road fatalities.

But while some cities will gain significant advantages by introducing AVs, others will fare better by promoting other mobility options, such as e-bikes and e-scooters. Indeed, in some settings, AVs could exacerbate the problems that municipal planners are hoping to solve. Before taking action, cities must assess whether AVs will be a transportation panacea or a burden.

The report includes the following key findings:

  • Cities achieve significant tangible benefits by actively shaping the urban mobility environment. For example, Los Angeles could cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 2.7 million metric tons a year through policies that promoted shared AVs and curbed the city’s private vehicle fleet. 
  • New York planners could free up the equivalent of about 900 blocks of space currently reserved for parking, if they created the conditions for robo-shuttles to thrive.
  • New physical and digitally connected infrastructure (including dedicated lanes and sensors that would enable self-driving cars to communicate with the surrounding environment) will be essential for AVs to succeed. 
  • Cities that allow private car use to grow in line with past trends will see their urban environment deteriorate significantly, with traffic volume increasing by an average of 6%, and total parking space by 8%.
  • For some cities (such as Hong Kong), promoting micro-mobility and walking could deliver greater benefits than introducing AVs.

“Cities need to create a vision of where they want to be in the future and start acting now. If they do nothing, and if the growth in private car use increases in line with past trends, the urban environment is set to worsen significantly,” said Nikolaus Lang, a BCG managing director and senior partner, and leader of the firm’s Global Advantage practice worldwide.

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