By Timothy Hodgetts
Self-driving cars will change how we live, in all sorts of ways. But they won’t just affect us humans — the coming revolution in autonomous transport has significant implications for wildlife as well. Nature conservationists and planners need to think hard about the impact of driverless vehicles, most notably in terms of renewed urban sprawl.
In some ways, wider developments in automotive technology bode well for the environment. Electric cars will increasingly replace the internal combustion engine, and that should, in theory, reduce carbon emissions and health-afflicting air pollution.
Through minimizing traffic jams, driverless cars may also reduce overall energy use. Unlike human drivers, computers can avoid the “concertina” effect of needless acceleration and braking that exacerbates congestion, and won’t be tempted to “rubberneck” when passing an accident. And, as autonomous vehicles aren’t restricted by human reaction times, it may make sense to increase speed limits for them on major inter-city routes.
So driverless cars promise a future of faster journey times with much reduced environmental impacts. They may even mean less wildlife roadkill. But it’s the very efficiency of driverless cars that poses a challenge for planners and conservationists. The threat is an unchecked increase in low-density urbanization.
Driving into the countryside
Autonomous vehicles promise a future in which passengers are free to use their time productively (working, for example). And driverless vehicles can park themselves (or be part of a shared pool) which saves yet more time in the morning rush. Coupled with faster journey times, the incentives to live further out of town will increase significantly.
There are both push and pull factors at work here: sky-high residential prices in most cities push people away from urban centers while healthy environments and green living pull people towards the hinterlands. The limiting factor in suburban spread is often travel time, either by public or private means. Driverless cars fundamentally alter the equation.
Existing planning policies are based on our current transport systems. Green-belts, for example, are designed to reduce urban sprawl by restricting development within a buffer zone around an urban area. However, the reduced transport times offered by driverless cars make it easier to live outside the belt while still working inside. So these loops of green are in danger of becoming a thin layer in a sandwich of ever-spreading suburbanization.
This is, of course, a familiar challenge since the rise of the automotive age in the 1940s. However, the solutions designed by planners have been calibrated for a human-driving automotive system — not for the supercharged future of driverless transport.
Other examples of planning protection for wildlife include nature reserves, national parks and (in the U.K.) “areas of outstanding natural beauty.” Such areas have either strict controls on development, or do not permit it at all. However, they are nice places to live in or nearby. The coming revolution in automotive journey times and the ability to work behind the (computer-driven) wheel will make living in such areas increasingly compatible with a commute to the nearest city.
Sick of sprawl
Natural habitats being lost entirely or splintered into ever-smaller fragments have long been understood as some of the primary causes of species extinctions across the world. Renewed urban sprawl threatens to increase the magnitude of both habitat loss and fragmentation. These threats are well known among conservationists, but there are differences of opinion on how best to respond.
For example, eco-modernists advocate a strategy of “land-sparing,” whereby human activities are concentrated into urban areas and vast tracts of land are set aside for nature. There are many cultural and ethical problems inherent in herding humans into cities, but the near-term planning issues posed by autonomous vehicles will exacerbate the challenge given they will boost demand to live in “unspared” lands.
Alternatively, some conservationists advocate “land-sharing,” in which human communities redesign the way we farm and live so as to co-exist with wildlife, cheek-by-jowl. Autonomous vehicles pose significant challenges for either approach, by supercharging the fragmentary effect of road systems.
Whichever approach is taken, we’ll need to redesign existing systems and policies to take account of the increased range that driverless transport facilitates. This may involve new zoning laws to protect wider areas of countryside than at present. It certainly requires further development of green infrastructure, habitat corridors and “greenways.”
It might also involve engineering solutions, especially given the fact that autonomous vehicles should be much more amenable to being driven underground. It is possible to imagine a future in which the famous bear bridges of Banff are tiny precursors to a vast program in which rural highways are covered with forests of green. Retrofitting roads into tunnels won’t be cheap, but it becomes easier when human drivers are taken out of the equation. Software drivers are less bothered by artificial light and more efficient at mitigating the congestion impact during construction.
Much conservation policy is based on planning for the world we live in now. Strategic conservation planning needs instead to take account of likely futures. And in a future of driverless cars, that is likely to result in the mega-cities of the 20th century becoming the mega-sprawls of the 21st. Unless, of course, planners and conservationists rise to this new challenge.
Timothy Hodgetts is a research fellow at the University of Oxford. This post originally appeared at The Conversation.