We can draw insight into the future of buildings from America’s new obsession with the self-driving car


Spending Christmas in America, I was intrigued by their increasing interest in the march of the self-driving car. There is an annual cross-desert race for unmanned vehicles which has spurred the development of sensing devices, cloud analytics and actuators. Now Google has jumped the queue and gone on-road by basing its driverless cars on Global Positioning, Google maps and Streetview, using sensors on top to react to traffic and signals.

“It’s a lot easier to spot a red light if you know that you are approaching one”, the development engineers are saying. The car is now a cursor moving across the surface of a 1:1 map, reading all the data as it rolls.

What is still to come is the flood of sensor input that cars have to have, feeding in the real-time use and performance data of the building

With BIM we have a map of the finished building at 1:1. The facilities manager is able to move through the real building, with a smartphone or tablet, and read off what lies beneath the skin in augmented reality. The facilities manager can also do this on the desktop BIM. What is still to come is the flood of sensor input that cars have to have, feeding in the real-time use and performance data of the building. That is nearing, and when it arrives we shall have parallel Big Data technologies for cars and buildings and of course for cities too. Buildings will drive themselves better than we could, calling on their facilities managers only for any intervention required. Users will be able to expect support from the self-driving building for their use of it. As digital guru Paul Fletcher puts it: “digital systems and data can empower our decision making, if only we accept our human shortcomings.”

This looks like it’s about five years away for general use, in other words not long after we adopt BIM Level 2 in the UK. It will trump concepts like COBie which try to compress operations and maintenance information into spreadsheets for humans. The data required will be found directly and simply, and probably without human intervention.

The New York Times for 15 December notes that this is all eerily like one of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science, which tells of a country where cartography is an obsession, ending when full scale maps plate the entire land. We are headed for such a world where the virtual and the real are enmeshed. The real will be understood by consulting its virtual doppelganger.

Richard Saxon is the UK’s BIM ambassador for growth. He is also on the board of the CIC, responsible for innovation