How CAVs will alter our urban landscape

Is our urban landscape about to change forever?

As we move towards a future where the majority of vehicles are autonomous, cities will need better and more frequent pick-up and drop-off points, the change will also see a shift in car parking from urban centres to the outskirts of towns.

Buro Happold has been running a series of design sprints focusing on how cities might change as transport becomes more automated. We asked our engineers; how can urban streets be reclaimed and reimagined through the introduction of connected and autonomous vehicles?


How close are we to the ‘autonomous city’?

With advances in navigation and mapping software, self-driving electric vehicles are now commercially available. Apple, Google and Uber are all working to produce connected and autonomous electric vehicles (CAVs), moved more by computers and software than people. Volvo has announced that all its new cars from 2019 will be either electric or hybrid. Ford also promises to invest £3.4bn in developing 13 electric vehicles by 2020.

The ultimate vision seems to be a world where CAVs respond to their environment using sensors to analyse surroundings and connect to other vehicles, creating a system that can fully optimise itself to move quickly and safely in a city, adopting real time traffic management systems, reducing the required distance between vehicles to increase road capacity and reducing the space requirement for parking.

Smart garages incorporate charging points
Smart garages incorporate charging points and alerts vehicles to free parking spaces. Image:

How will our future cities adapt to CAVs?

Most of today’s developed cities are planned around cars. Up to 30 per cent of the real estate of a city is associated with parking vehicles. But what would our cities look like under a possible future scenario where a fleet of electric self-driving cars drop passengers at work before returning to a remote car park on the edge of the city, or picking up taxi passengers.

The need for better quality kerbside pickup points.

Ride hailing apps like Uber have already created an increase in drop-off and pick-up zones at transport hubs, hotels and shopping venues. CAVs will increase the popularity of these types of services and place even more pressure on the spaces adjacent to large commercial and public buildings. Developers of these venues need to address the need for high capacity drop off and pick up zones.

Shifting parking to the edge of cities.

Buro Happold engineers also highlighted the possibility that CAVs could reduce city parking facilities with the deployment of the smart garage – highly connected spaces fitted with new levels of technology from electric charging stations to hardware that alerts vehicles to free space. These parking spaces will no longer be in the city centre where land value is high but perhaps pushed towards the urban edges, allowing city designers to reclaim some of the central city space for people. This reduces the urban heat island effect in the centre of towns and improves urban air quality for inhabitants.

Electric cars and how we power them.

The UK government states in its ‘Road to Zero’ strategy that it wants “almost every car and van” in the UK to be zero emission by 2040. However, this date has caused controversy from Parliament’s business select committee, which says that not only should there be more clarity on the details, but also that the ‘zero emission’ date should be much sooner. Electric cars offer significant environmental, economic, performance and efficiency benefits. The efficiency of a traditional combustion engine is around 20 per cent, which increases in electric vehicles to 95 per cent. A ‘traditional’ car has around 2,000 moving parts, compared to around 20 in electric vehicles, which makes the cost of maintenance negligible.

Two-way Smart grid technology allows car owners to either power their own homes using car batteries or sell energy back into the grid during peak periods of peak demand. If all of the 31 million cars in the UK put just 1kwh of energy into the grid, this would generate 31 GWH of electricity, enough to power almost 3 million homes for a day.

However, the environmental credentials of powering cars using grid-supplied electricity are dependent upon the source of energy generation. According to, the UK grid is getting greener. The proportion of energy generated from renewable sources in 2016 grew to around a quarter of the total energy mix and looks set to increase.

The UK government’s latest auction for support contracts shows that offshore wind costs have halved in recent years and biomass projects and combined heat and power (CHP) projects have also achieved significant savings. The UK is now the world’s largest offshore wind generator and wind, contributing to 11 per cent of the UK’s energy generation in 2015.

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