Despite resistance to the idea from a sizeable proportion of the public, the technology to create autonomous vehicles is already with us. What does this mean for the construction industry?

Richard Threlfall

It must be a boy thing. I like high-speed cars as much as I like high-speed trains. I love looking at the extraordinary, beautiful cars in a Ferrari showroom and dreaming about driving them like Lewis Hamilton around Italian mountain passes.

But life isn’t like that. Driving mostly seems to involve crawling around crowded town centres, full of buses and taxis and delivery vehicles and children haphazardly crossing the road on the way to school. Or trying not to switch off completely as you enter the nineteenth consecutive mile of roadworks on the M1 on cruise control. In a Ford S-Max. With two children in the back asking “are we nearly there yet?” while trying to inflict mortal damage on each other.”

Which is why I find it astonishing that when I start to wax lyrical about a future of autonomous vehicles so many of those I talk to seem to think it sounds as socially unacceptable as inviting bids to look after your children on Ebay. According to a recent YouGov survey 46% of UK adults would be prepared to travel in an autonomous vehicle but 39% have yet to be convinced. I get told that driving is an icon of the human attainment of freedom, and therefore to hand over the wheel to a computer is to reduce us back to slavery. And then I get told that the computer either of its own coding error or cyber-attack will cause a multiple car pile up on the M6. As if that doesn’t happen already by the incompetence of humans.

Autonomous vehicles offer potentially huge benefits in terms of safety, environmental impact and mobility for the disabled and elderly

In December Arup produced The Future of Highways, a wonderful booklet capturing a series of case studies of how technology could transform the experience of transport on our roads. I read the case studies to my children, Pippa and Tom, and found them far more open to this future than many adults. They seem to think that being able to summon a car that will drive itself to your door in the morning and take you wherever you want to go while you read Asterix is a better use of life than having your hands on the wheel and your eyes glued to the bumper ahead for two hours each day.

And autonomous vehicles offer potentially huge benefits in terms of safety, environmental impact and mobility for the disabled and elderly.

So let us assume that the pace of technology and the economic and lifestyle benefits lead us in short order towards a world of autonomous vehicles. What does that mean for the construction industry?

First and most obviously it has potential impact on the demand for road building. There is a fervent debate about how much capacity benefit may accrue from cars which can be convoyed at a fixed distance from each other on our motorways, but it seems likely that there should be some significant improvement particularly with smarter junction control. The nature of road surfaces may change, for example to embed induction charging or solar panels. And road surfaces should presumably wear more slowly and evenly when the braking, acceleration and positioning of vehicles on the road can be controlled.

Second, it opens up interesting opportunities in the logistics of the industry. Autonomous vehicles will not only move people but also goods, and with much more reliable schedules, so just-in-time delivery of materials can become a science, not an art. And plant and machinery can be booked to attend on site in the same way as the car which takes you there in the morning, automatically returning to the hire company when they have finished the task.

Third, it might change quite radically the way in which certain infrastructure is built and maintained. Autonomous vehicles can carry out tasks, from road and track laying to verge and hedge cutting. The levels of data which flow back to Highways England will become immense and the ability to analyse and plan interventions from that data will become key to driving best value in the use of taxpayers’ money.

I can imagine some will say this is all too far off to worry about today. But it’s not that far off. Nearly all the technology for driverless vehicles already exists. The Department for Transport recently produced a significant report “The Pathway to Driverless Vehicles” (presumably after endless debate as to how to avoid calling it “The Road to…”) and have undertaken to create the frameworks to allow driverless vehicles to be tested on our streets - now. Separately, transport consultant David Quarmby is leading a report into how that might impact the road network.

For me, none of this can happen soon enough. I like driving cars, but not as much as a I like the thought of a world in which I can go anywhere without driving one.

Richard Threlfall is head of infrastructure, building and construction at KPMG