Elon Musk says every new Tesla comes with all of the hardware needed for fully autonomous driving. He is hardly alone in trying to spare humans the tedium of driving. Audi, GM, Google, and Uber are among the many companies working toward the day when cars do everything and you’re just along for the ride.
Musk, ever the showman, plans to see one of his cars drive across the country next year without a human doing anything more than enjoying the scenery. Others lay out more conservative timelines for rolling out their technology, but make no mistake—robocars are coming, and sooner than you think.
This technology promises to radically remake the very form and fabric of our cities, even if it remains to be seen just what those changes will look like. We asked eight urban planners and futurists to share their visions of a driverless future.
Carlo Ratti, Director, MIT Senseable City Lab
Ratti, whose lab anticipates how technology transform the built environment, predicts that vehicle automation will require 80 percent fewer cars on any given highway. “In general, fewer cars could mean shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller environmental impact,” Ratti says. “Vast areas of urban land currently occupied by parking lots and roads could be reinvented for a whole new spectrum of social functions” like parks, public spaces, and maker spaces. Cars, he adds, could also become extensions of our homes. But Ratti warns: “We can also have nightmarish scenarios. For instance, if self-driving were to become so cheap that people would prefer jumping into a car than, say, taking the subway. In that case our cities could easily become gridlocked.”
Eric Guerra, assistant professor of city and regional planning, University of Pennsylvania
“I think in urban environments it will lead to less driving and urban space will be used in a more positive way,” Guerra says. At the same time, he’s skeptical of the utopian claims that we’ll all be inherently better off. “If you’re living in a low density suburban community, they’re finding it will increase travel when you use existing travel models.” In other words: There are still a lot of unknowns. “It’s a really hard thing to quantitatively predict,” he says. “There’s a good deal of uncertainty in terms of how it influences urban form.”
Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia
Townsend, who thinks a lot about how technology will impact cities and the people who inhabit them, argues that those studying the impacts of autonomous vehicles are focusing too much on passenger cars, and not enough on all the other self-driving vehicles that will soon pop up.”It’s actually trash trucks, trailers, delivery vans, taxis and other vehicles that take up much of the space in cities. They will be completely transformed by automated technologies,” he says. This change, along with automated mass transit, will make dense cities much more efficient and livable. But the technology, he adds, will also exacerbate sprawl unless legislators take action. “When you make an economic input cheaper, the net effect isn’t to use less. It’s to use a lot more of it. So without restrictions or disincentives, we’ll have more cars.” The good news: An automated vehicle whose software can be updated at any time can adapt dramatically over time. “There’s a lot more chances to get it right, because we can change it as we go along,” Townsend says.
Kinder Baumgardner, managing principle, SWA
Baumgardner, a Houston-based landscape architect and transportation planner, recently published a paper entitled “Beyond Google’s Cute Car.” He predicts that a reduction in cars will transform urban cores, with entrepreneurs reimagining parking lots, parking spaces, and garages by converting them into housing, retail outlets, and public spaces. Already, he notes, garage operators are beginning to strategize how they can reuse or sell their properties.
“Who knows, garages could become the cool place to live? You suddenly have an opportunity for space where it didn’t exist.”
Suburbs, meanwhile, could become less isolated, as garages, driveways and cul-de-sacs become common spaces and walking replaces driving in town centers. “You’ll get to know your neighbors better,” says Baumgardner. “You’ll see changes pop up in an ad-hoc way.” Suburbs, he adds, will also become more desirable. “The one inconvenience, driving, goes away. There’s going to be more demand to live in those places.”
David Ory, planning principal, San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission
Ory believes planners need to think broadly about how technology will change the urban environment, given how unpredictable it can be. “Instead of thinking about one future,” he asks, “do we think about dramatically different futures?” We won’t, he says, just have driverless cars, but automated, seamless systems for buses, subways, bicycles, and much more. The ideal scenario? A major reduction in land devoted to cars of all types—but that could vary widely based on an area’s resources. He also warns that we can get ahead of ourselves in planning for driverless cities. “There are a lot of revolutions that don’t come about. Driverless is the most promising, but it’s still somewhat speculative.”
Jarret Walker, president, Jarrett Walker + Associates
Walker, a planning and transit consultant who has advised cities around the world, is also wary of utopian visions of the self-driving landscape. “A lot more money wants self-driving cars to be wonderful than wants us to remain skeptical,” he says. He warns of induced demand: “If you make something easier, more people do it, so you have to think of the consequences of what it means for more people to do it.” That means there’s going to have to be a lot of regulation and intervention to manage this process to limit the otherwise devastating effects of induced demand. The real fight, in other words, will be policy-related. “The battle is to create a space in which the question is not how we get ready for self-driving vehicles but rather what kind of city we want.”
Lisa Futing, Project Manager, Audi Urban Futures Initiative
“The biggest change to the urban fabric will be to parking infrastructure,” says Futing, whose initiative sponsors research collaborations with academic and cultural institutions dedicated to urban mobility. “Parking will be moved indoors and outside of city centers, freeing up outdoor lots and spaces for development and public space. Lots them will be able to accommodate 60 percent more cars thanks to smaller driving lanes, greater maneuverability, and a lack of need for stairs and elevators.”
Brooks Rainwater, Senior Executive Director, Center For City Solutions, National League of Cities
Rainwater warns that few cities are thinking about the problem of self-driving cars. His group has found that only 6 percent of the country’s major cities’ long-range transportation master plans consider them. His most novel prediction is that the traditional boundaries of the urban form—such as those between roads, sidewalks, and street walls— will begin to break down. “Through technology you can get to a point where you no longer need traffic lights or clear distinctions between roads and sidewalks. Our cities will be more data intense and human-centered. You can really see the urban form shifting in ways that are hard to imagine. Particularly in our densest cities.”
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