IN 1894 the London Times ran a story entitled The Great Horse Manure Crisis. It predicted that within 50 years, based on current trends, the city’s streets would be nine feet deep in horse manure. At that time London had 50,000 horses, the main form of transport, generating 500 tons of manure daily.

Within 20 years, with the advent of the internal combustion engine, horses were fast disappearing. Technology sometimes fixes otherwise insurmountable problems.

Autonomous vehicle technology is already available. Modern automobiles, with automatic gearboxes, electric engines, adaptive cruise control, driver alert systems, proximity sensors, automatic parking, lane tracking and satellite navigation are close to making redundant the last few functions of the driver. Car manufacturers already have prototypes built. Your next car could be self-drive.

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Today’s cars spend 97 per cent of their life parked. The implications for public space design without miles of parked cars cluttering up our streets and driveways are significant. City centre and suburb housing density can rise, providing more compact spaces, ironically making active travel solutions more deliverable.

The advent of self-drive will parallel the roll-out of electric vehicles. And it may solve two of the biggest potential problems electric vehicles present: how to cope with the demand surge from large numbers of cars being simultaneously plugged in at end of the day, and how to provide enough charging points.

Like the developing countries who leapfrogged landline telephones and moved directly to mobile networks, self-drive could leapfrog these problems. Why build local charge points when automated vehicles are perfectly capable of driving themselves to out-of-town charging warehouses?

A smart connected transport network, linked to the electricity grid, will direct vehicles to charge when supply is plentiful and to run down batteries when the wind stops blowing. While not solving all problems this ability to engineer short-term demand to dovetail supply can smooth out, rather than magnify, uneven supply. Millions of car batteries become a powerful dynamic interlinked energy storage system.

In a 100 per cent self-drive zone smart vehicles know where each other are, what speed they are travelling at and where they are going. Vehicles direct themselves to the fastest route taking into account traffic flows.

Traffic capacity over a given stretch of road could increase dramatically. All the stop-start delays caused by driver reaction times are eliminated, as are traffic lights and complicated one-way systems, making traffic flow vastly more efficient, 400 per cent or so by some estimates. Fewer lanes will be required with implications for local and national infrastructure spend. Despite easier access to cheap personal transport driving up total passenger miles, those currently scratching their heads over how to manage congestion – one of today’s “horse manure” challenges – may have to find other things to worry about. This revolution is therefore not just about driverless cars, but about an interconnected system of automated personal transport.

The implications of autonomous vehicles for public policy could be significant. Now is the time to start planning.

Tomorrow: The costs