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Driverless, electric future just round the corner for urban cars

  • Published at 03:13 pm November 19th, 2017
Driverless, electric future just round the corner for urban cars
A driverless, electric car is only a swipe away in the cities of the future, where pollution clampdowns and rapid advances in technology will transform the way we travel, despite lagging infrastructure. As more and more countries announce a phasing-out of pure petrol and diesel cars, early versions of tomorrow's models are already on the streets: hybrid cars, fully electric motors and vehicles that can partially drive themselves. Attitudes to vehicle ownership in cities are changing as smartphone apps make a ride available in minutes. David Metz, of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London, believes developed cities have reached "peak car", with ownership no longer associated with increasing prosperity. Metz said city planning was changing to temper the vehicle access once thought vital. "We now see high-density urban areas are more successful with less traffic," he said, citing London's car-free Leicester Square entertainment district and the Canary Wharf financial hub. Cars could be phased out of city centres altogether, as urban planners ditch the 20th-century, car-focused grid-plan model for city streets. Private cars, sitting idle for 23 hours a day, might be eclipsed by car-pool clubs, journey-sharing apps or one-trip rental cars as seen in cities around the world from Berlin to Istanbul to Vancouver.

'Driving everywhere by themselves'

Driverless technology also looks set to revolutionise urban road travel, according to industry figures. Graeme Smith, chief executive of Oxbotica, a British company developing autonomous vehicle software, said new cities being planned in China envision all vehicles being electric, autonomous and publicly-owned. "In those cities, your life would be fundamentally different," he told AFP. "50 years into the future, maybe these things will be driving everywhere by themselves - but there's a progression to go through." Driverless technology faces the challenge, over time, of bringing down the cost of sensors while improving their performance - and there is currently no standard operating methodology. Some cars with levels two and three autonomy are already on the roads. Britain's Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said he expected the first level four self-driving cars to reach the UK market by 2021, bringing the world closer to level five, or total autonomy. Fully driverless cars could help ease gridlock by driving closer together in convoy and avoid traffic by exchanging real-time information.

'The final destination'

The switch to electric vehicles (EVs), meanwhile, is already well under way. Volvo will no longer sell solely diesel or petrol cars from 2019, while Volkswagen's Audi brand is gearing up to offer an electric version of every one of its models. "We think it is really the final destination for the auto industry," said Eric Feunteun, Renault's electric vehicle programme director, told journalists in Utrecht in the Netherlands earlier this month at an event where the French car maker unveiled partnerships with renewable energy companies. Britain and France intend to ban the sale of fully petrol or diesel cars from 2040, while smog-plagued India wants to sell only electric cars by 2030. Besides legislation on a pan-European and a national level, cities themselves are taking action on pollution. London is set to introduce an ultra-low emissions zone in the city centre in 2019, with charges for more polluting vehicles, and hopes to extend it to the inner London ring road by 2021.

'Woeful lack' of charging points

Manufacturers said they feel up to the challenge. "We'll supersede the sale of petrol/diesel cars way before 2040," said Jonny Berry, Renault's regional electric vehicles fleet sales manager. Berry was speaking at a car show in Regent Street in the heart of London's shopping district, where electric models were the focus of attention. "I think it's a very easy target for us to reach. More and more people are coming round to the idea." While some countries like Norway have a high take-up of electric vehicles, in many world cities, the charging infrastructure is patchy. Some commentators see a future of wireless charging base pads laid under city streets, underground car trains or drone car flights; others are more sceptical. Expert motoring journalist Matt Robinson said a "woeful lack" of suitable charging points remained a big problem for electric car users. "London is the best place in Britain to own an electric car but the infrastructure lags behind the uptake of early adopters," he said. Robinson is also sceptical about the distance ranges given by EV manufacturers for their batteries, saying they are almost "impossible to obtain in the real world". Driverless cars also face overcoming the "public fear factor", he said. "Do you ever trust your safety to something doing 70 miles per hour without human control?"
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