Driverless Cars, Rewritten Cities

The driverless car is more than just a passive mode of transport. It entails a new form of city life. As we make the shift from drivers to supervisors and from owners to users, we can expect a variety of transformations to take place.

As Benedict Evans writes, “Autonomy and on-demand services change who buys [cars], so the buying criteria will be different. But they could also change the urban landscape just as much as cars themselves did—what do mass-market retail or restaurants look like if no-one needs to park?”

Believing that autonomous cars and on-demand services will dovetail—removing drivers “cuts the cost” and “expand[s] supply” for these services—Evans envisions a city remade in the pay-per-use, driverless car’s image.

General Motors recently invested $500 million to explore a driverless ridesharing service with Lyft, believing—alongside Evans—in a growing access rather than ownership model.

And though the technology for fully driverless cars may still be years away—not to mention popular acceptance and regulatory buy-in—we are already taking steps in that direction. Tesla’s updated Model S features an advanced cruise control system that invests it with high levels of autonomy. As Natalie Shoemaker writes for Big Think, “This Autopilot system can handle speed, steering within a well-defined lane, and changing to another lane with the flick of a switch (provided the way is clear), and all the driver has to do is supervise.”

As we make the shift from drivers to supervisors and from owners to users—no longer needing to buy, refill, park, maintain, or replace our vehicles—we can expect a variety of transformations to take place:

  • Traffic and Emissions: Emissions and congestion will reduce as rightsized cars plot the most efficient courses.
  • Accessibility: More people are eligible to supervise than drive, potentially increasing sole car access to the disabled, visually impaired, and elderly (Shoemaker).
  • Safety: The safety of driving is anticipated to increase dramatically—90% of car accidents today being due to human error.
  • Car Design: “Removing steering wheels and other manual controls in an autonomous car is a further reduction in mechanical complexity beyond moving to electric, and also an occasion for re-imagining what a car should be” (Evans).
  • Space: Few cars not-in-use means fewer cars overall and more space on the road, on private property, and in public spaces—idle cars being not so much “parked” as “stowed away.”

A video on Autonomous Intersection Management from the University of Texas at Austin imagines that driverless cars will observe entirely new—and far more efficient—intersection protocols. From all sides, vehicles simultaneously pass through the intersection without ever needing to stop.

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