Can driverless technology help solve Edinburgh’s mobility challenges?

Scotland has long been at the heart of innovation and invention. From the steam engine to the telephone, through to the theory of electromagnetism or the discovery of penicillin, some of the greatest advances in modern technology have originated from Scotland.

Autonomous Vehicles Edinburgh

The desire to grow and progress continues to inform our national focus even today. The Scottish capital is one of the most thriving and successful cities in the UK, with an international outlook that promises to propel Edinburgh firmly to the forefront of global advancement. With the Edinburgh 2050 City Vision setting out a blueprint for how our city can evolve, now more than ever we need to consider exactly how we should be responding to the technological and digital opportunities of the future.  

The Future of Mobility 

Urban mobility is a major area for advancement. The impact of digital disruption and the inevitable proliferation of new and exciting technologies, from electric through to connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV), will have a huge impact on the shape of our cities and quality of life for citizens.  

For example, congestion in Edinburgh is estimated to cost £309 million every year and, with the Scottish capital’s population expected to grow by 20% (595,000) by 2039, the strain on city infrastructure is only set to increase. Against this backdrop, there is significant potential for driverless technology to play a greater role in helping to move people around the city, taking more vehicles off the road and freeing-up space for alternative uses. Crucially however, this will depend on new technology being deployed in a complementary manner that helps to reduce congestion, rather than adding to it.

It is broadly accepted that increasingly intelligent CAV systems will be electric. With 21% of buses in Edinburgh already hybrid or low-emission vehicles and Edinburgh accounting for more than 23% of all Electric Vehicles (EV) in Scotland, we’re well on the path towards adoption. By 2050 we should be moving even closer to, if not entirely embracing, autonomous vehicles. 

Making Driverless Technology work for Edinburgh 

Every city has its own dynamic. What works in a city like Dubai or Los Angeles is not necessarily going to be the right approach in the UK where, to be successful, driverless vehicles will need to be integrated with and work alongside our existing networks without resulting in an overall increase in the number of vehicles on the road.  

In Edinburgh, we have a strong focus on developing cleaner, safer and more inclusive transport systems.  The City of Edinburgh Council’s sustainable transport agenda includes the promotion of public transport options alongside more active travel modes like walking and cycling, while the Edinburgh Vision sets out a target to reduce carbon emissions by 40% across the city.  

CAV technology could be extremely helpful in both of these respects. There are some direct benefits resulting from a well-planned and implemented CAV system: not only would it require a significantly lower capacity road network, but by taking cars off the streets it could also help to free up space for cycleways and footways and improve overall air quality. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that shared transport space can create conflict between different modes, so a focus of any CAV system should be to promote segregation between motorized vehicles and vulnerable road users.

Sustainable Transport Systems  

Testament to the scale of Scotland’s ambition, the country has already pledged to phase out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032; eight years ahead of the UK-wide target. The use of fossil fuels will need to be completely replaced by electric vehicle technology, yet this will require some major changes across the city to improve charging infrastructure. 

The City Electric Vehicle Action Plan sets out three strategic electric vehicle charging hubs to be installed in distinct zones across the city. These will be a key priority in helping to move Edinburgh towards a more sustainable future.  The City of Edinburgh Council has also applied to Transport Scotland’s Switched on Towns and Cities Challenge Fund for £2 million in funding to support the installation of more than 200 new charging points across the city.  

However, this could raise some potential questions around peaks in demand and whether our electricity grid is equipped to cope with such surges? It is worth noting that Scotland has already been making huge progress in securing an increasing proportion of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Providing we can continue to build on this base, renewable energy shows significant promise in terms of its ability to meet increased capacity requirements.  

We are seeing some extremely positive signals of intent around both CAV and EV, but we will need to keep building on these excellent foundations if Edinburgh is going to fully embrace autonomous mobility in the long term.

A citizen-centric approach

Numerous studies around the world have suggested that consumer confidence in CAV is low. This is perhaps one of the most critical areas to address, with user-experience ultimately being essential for adoption. 

If emergent CAV technologies are to be accepted by Edinburgh’s citizens, pilots will need to be tailored with a view first and foremost on customer needs and experience, and which clearly demonstrate the benefits of new technology. Engaging with the people of Edinburgh to gauge appetite and start to build confidence will be a major step in the right direction, particularly if electric and connected solutions are integrated together in a way that improves the overall transport experience. True innovation can only succeed if the focus remains firmly fixed on the customer, citizen or end-user. 

In every respect, public and private sector cooperation to adopt a positive regulatory strategy will be essential if the benefits of CAV are to be realised and work in parallel with Edinburgh’s wider mobility objectives.

CAV is coming, but who’s driving your future? 

Graham Hill

Cities Executive for Scotland Ask me a question
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