Cars & traffic

Apr 22, 2013

Could driverless cars reshape our major cities?

Car makers say autonomous vehicles are imminent. If so, they could dramatically reshape our cities, yet current long-term planning for our biggest cities assumes they'll never happen

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Google's autonomous car (that's a passenger - US cars are LHD). Google says its fleet has driven 500,000 km. Four US States have passed laws permitting driverless cars

A lot of the discussion on autonomous (or driverless) cars focuses on the considerable problems of implementation, particularly the transition period during which human-controlled vehicles are likely to share road space with machine-controlled vehicles.

This could take decades so there’re bound to be serious problems. Some of them will be technical but most will be political. What would the reaction be, for example, the first time an autonomous vehicle runs into a pedestrian?

I think there’s a parallel here with the introduction of cars at the end of the nineteenth century. Back then it wasn’t obvious cars would succeed on the scale they ultimately did.

They were expensive to buy and operate for all other than the extremely rich. There was limited supporting infrastructure such as fuel stations and all-weather roads.

The vehicles themselves were mechanically unreliable, difficult to control and operate, and unsafe for occupants. They were seen as a serious threat to pedestrians and horses as they were capable of what must’ve seemed incomprehensible speeds.

Moreover, there was active opposition to cars. As Aaron Wiener notes in the Washington City Paper:

….in the early days of the automobile, when the technology itself was being questioned and few rules existed to govern traffic and parking, there really was a war on cars. Driving could get you arrested in some places, whacked with stones in others, and actually shot by gun-wielding police in at least one. This wasn’t a philosophical debate over parking or bike lanes. It was a real, knock-down, drag-out battle.

I don’t think autonomous cars will provide the same quantum leap in mobility and productivity today that cars and trucks offered back in the early twentieth century, but they nevertheless offer a compelling, even irresistable, proposition.

Google expects to release its autonomous vehicle technology in five years and GM, Audi, Nissan and BMW all expect to have driverless cars on the road by 2020. Even if we add on an extra 20 years for hyperbole, it’s an idea whose time seems close – certainly within standard planning time frames.

Subject to the technical problems being overcome, fully autonomous cars have the potential to lower the capital and operating costs of travel, increase speeds, and make time spent in-vehicle more productive and more comfortable.

Since intelligent vehicles are much less likely to have accidents, they can be considerably lighter. They’ll consequently be cheaper to make, use less fuel and be more amenable to alternative power systems.

They’ll be faster too because inter-connected computers can manage higher speeds better than humans as well as intelligently manage congested traffic conditions.

Since they won’t require a driver, passengers can spend time working, reading, getting drunk or sleeping.

People who currently can’t drive – like the young, the elderly, the infirm and the drunk – will enjoy greatly enhanced mobility.

There’ll be many fewer accidents and lower insurance costs. Households will only require one car, since an autonomous vehicle can drop off one member and return by itself to pick up and transport other members.

Autonomous cars will spend less time searching for parking spaces. They can drop passengers at their destination and then take themselves to the nearest car park.

Probably the most cited potential benefit is greater road capacity. Because autonomous cars can travel faster and closer together, roads could take more vehicles, delaying the need for additional infrastructure.

Some of the biggest benefits though would come from car-sharing. Rather than own one or more vehicles that sit parked most of the time, households could summon a rented vehicle as and when needed, much as they currently use a taxi.

Car-sharing isn’t an inevitable way autonomous cars would be deployed but they make the possibility plausible. Sharing would save households money and lower income travellers could avoid the capital cost hurdle of car ownership.

For the society as a whole, sharing would reduce the number of vehicles that have to be manufactured and the number of parking spaces required in sought-after locations.

The average size of the vehicle fleet could also be smaller. Since the majority of trips involve only one or two persons, most vehicles could be smaller and lighter.

Autonomous cars won’t eliminate traffic congestion. Nor will they obviate the need for public transport in dense locations, but they could make it cheaper by eliminating the expense of drivers. That would also be true for trucks and delivery vans.

But there would also be downsides. If travel is cheaper, faster, and more comfortable, it lowers the cost of ‘driving’ ever further.

People can consequently live further from work and other key destinations. That’s how trains and trams, and subsequently cars, facilitated suburban sprawl.

Easier travel provides a private benefit – it increases the range of housing/locational choices available in terms of space, amenity and affordability, as well as easing pressure for redevelopment within established areas.

But as we know from the history of urban sprawl over a century and a half, it can also impose social costs.

Autonomous cars could increase travel in other ways too. Even trivial decisions could lead to more travel – for example, some households might order the car to do multiple automated shopping trips on a just-in-time  basis rather than do all shopping in one trip.

Those whose travel options are currently restricted because they can’t drive would likely travel more if autonomous cars were available. That’s a private benefit, but could have a social cost.

Another issue is the potential for sharing autonomous cars might be more limited than much of the discussion assumes. Many travellers might prefer to have their own driverless car. They might not be prepared to wait for a shared vehicle to be dispatched or they might like the customisation potential a dedicated vehicle offers.

If car companies and developers are right that the technical and political problems associated with driverless cars will be overcome sooner rather than later, then policy-makers should be thinking now about what implications they might have for the functioning of cities.

Although they look 20-40 years ahead, neither the recently released draft metropolitan strategy for Sydney, nor the discussion paper for Melbourne’s strategic plan, seriously examine how autonomous cars might affect the long-term future of these cities.

From today’s perspective there are still big questions about the technology, but it’s a very big call to effectively assume autonomous vehicles will have no impact over a time frame of 20-40 years.

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22 thoughts on “Could driverless cars reshape our major cities?

  1. Alan Davies

    The Economist has a formal ‘debate’ on the motion: Are completely self-driving cars feasible in the forseeable future?

    Brad Templeton looks at liabilty issues with “robocars”.

  2. Dylan Nicholson

    Well despite the obvious political leaning/preferences of the author, there’s a few predictions he makes that I have agree are probably more likely to occur than the converse predictions of the death of suburbs due to likely skyrocketing costs of private car ownership:

    “This will encourage cities to become even more sprawling, putting massive pressure on existing planning rules. The premium on living centrally will be reduced, albeit not eliminated…”

    And I’d have to say – providing we can continue to cost-effectively fuel self-driving cars and we can reduce their environmental impact to be no worse than public transport, then this isn’t such a bad outcome in itself – most of the problems I have with existing “sprawl” and outer suburban developments are the design of such suburbs themselves: it’s even possible that the introduction of self-driving vehicles will allow and foster better design of new housing developments, hopefully ones that encourage walking & bicycling for shorter trips (or just as recreation). Certainly we shouldn’t need to dedicate such huge amounts of wasted space for parking for a start!
    But there’s a lot of unknowns, and it’s not that hard to imagine other possible technologies that will have just as much impact the way we travel and hence the layout of our towns and cities.

  3. Socrates

    John Burke

    Overall I do agree with the concept, but regarding freeways the capacity constraint at interchanges, which you have to get through to use the lanes in between, means you cna never get more cars per lane than at that point. Wherever you want to add more cars per lane, that is the chokepoint.

    That being said, yes the concept has many advantages. Driverless taxis coudl allow the equivalent of small responsive on-call buses. If we could find a way to get more people in each vehicle, that would greatly increase capacity.

    Driverless trains are already in use in NW Australia, and Docklands Light Rail. they are safe, reliable and cheaper to run. Only rail unions and the governments that seek to appease them are opposed.

  4. Patrick Reynolds

    It seems to me that the claimed benefits for DCs, or at least the likelihood of them being so profound as to make the extension of our car built environments viable for longer is seriously overstated. Most of the unsustainable dis-benefits of the car made world are not addressed at all by changing the means of the vehicles’ control: The huge land waste of parking and dispersed habitation; the enormous consumption of liquid fuels, the biosphere cooking output of this fossil fuel dependant technology all remain.

    Even your 20 year period could well be too optimistic. The Prius began production [not design, or testing, but production] in 1997, 15+ years ago and this technology is still only nibbling at the edges of the total fleet. It seems more likely that the introduction of these things will be in a race with demise of the whole hegemony of motordom in our cities. But then given the enormous sunk investment we have in the infrastructure of driving will prolong attempts to keep the late 20C idea of the city going way past its viability.

    Portable personal electric digital devices will remain the true game changing technology this century. Not so the energy sapping ideal of personal transportation. I smell jet-packs.

  5. Burke John

    “the bottlenecks” are indeed….

  6. Burke John

    Socrates @#7, the are indeed at freeway access points but DCs could take up much less space allowing more vehicles on the freeway, perhaps double with the increase in reaction time. Along with a likely ability to enter more efficiently DCs might well eliminate these bottlenecks.

    DCs could also have GPS transmitters (as in shipping) allowing a capacity to know the location of every vehicle on the road and choose the best route accordingly. They should even be able to allow for the Braess Paradox and other mathematical principles of network theory.

    Still, driverless trams, trains and buses sound like a better social and economic direction to me.

    On the other hand I’m surprised that I have never owned an electric carving knife or toothbrush. I’m sure these items don’t sell as well as powered dildos-who would have thought? I suppose transport interest is a rather blokey thing in the main.

  7. IkaInk

    @Alan 14 – Certainly it pays to think ahead and start brainstorming the possibilities. However it is also equally important to hedge your bets in a manner that realises many assumptions may prove to be false. For example, perhaps you are right in assuming DC may require less road space and therefore we won’t need to upgrade infrastructure as soon; on the other hand perhaps that assumption is completely incorrect. Here is what I consider a very plausible explanation on why DC may require more space (at least in the transitional stage).

    * DC take many more trips, due to the reduced “cost” of travel (which you’ve covered)
    * On street parking can’t be reduced as much as originally thought, because plenty of people are still using traditional cars and all the usual opposition to parking reductions is still in play.
    * DC don’t play very well with older cars, and still require comparable space seperating them.

    These factors could lead to an increase in demand for road space, which perversely could then be massively wasteful as the number of traditional cars drops off and the road space efficiency gains of DC become realised.

  8. Alan Davies

    Tom the first and best #10:

    Agree some of the advantages won’t materialise (or at least not fully) while ever there’s mixed traffic and, as I noted in the article, the transition will very likely take decades. I think attractive technological improvements are pretty much irresistable, so I think it’s something that could happen over the next 20-40 years and so needs to be thought about well ahead.

  9. Dylan Nicholson

    One thing – I suspect such vehicles will be on the market before it’s even legal for them to be on the roads without a licensed, sober and awake human driver. So initially they’ll probably be sold as something you can drive yourself for pleasure, but that will also take over for you on demand. It will only be once the laws are changed to allow them on the roads without a capable human driver that they’ll truly come into their own though. I’d also add the motel industry to the list of those that could suffer – any sort of largely utilitarian accommodation that largely exists so that drivers can take an overnight break aren’t going have much demand once driver-less cars are designed to be comfortable enough to sleep in while travelling. But that’s still a couple of decades off at least.

  10. IkaInk

    @Tom 10 – I agree wholeheartedly. Driverless cars may be less likely to be involved in accidents, especially much further down the track where the majority of cars are driverless, but nothing is stopping them getting rear ended on a freeway by a car that isn’t driverless when traffic traps them in place.

    Its also worth considering the time-frames associated with some of your assumptions Alan. Driverless cars may be capable of driving without a licensed driver pretty soon, but I’ll bet that politically they’re not allowed to until the technology is well and truly proven. In the meantime I would assume a licensed driver will still be required to sit in the drivers seat, sober and facing liability in the case of an accident; manual override will probably be necessary as well. Defeats the purpose almost entirely, but much easier to swallow politically.

  11. Tom the first and best


    I do think that it is unlikely that there will be a reduction in passenger protection standards, for 2 reasons:

    Firstly, it would require all cars to be driverless and that is decades off.

    Secondly, the trend has been in favour of higher safety standards for decades. They do not tend to get eroded, much less wound back. No politician or public official wants a high profile road death attributed to them.

  12. Alan Davies

    suburbanite #6:

    There is nothing inherent in the technology that will make people more sharing.

    Greater car-sharing isn’t inevitable or even likely, but I think autonomous cars make it more attractive because a shared vehicle can deliver itself to the driver’s front door, thereby lowering the cost of waiting.

    As for vehicles getting smaller/more fuel efficient, I don’t see any reason why this would happen just because the car is driverless.

    It’s because (a) cars could be lighter because they don’t have to be designed to withstand accidents, and (b) if shared, most cars can be two seaters. Your point about cars getting bigger to accommodate in-transit activities is a very good one though (and is illustrated by the size of first class seating/sleeping on airplanes).

    Tom the first and best #8:

    The days of driverless cars being on the roads are soon but them being in a near monopoly is far off. There are many people who like driving and would still want to drive themselves.

    Perhaps there’ll be an early tipping point where the legal system turns against non-autonomous vehicles, much as it turned against pedestrians in favour of cars by the 1920s.

  13. Tom the first and best

    Driverless cars would likely undermine the inner-city parking industry as it would mean they would have to compete with the car driving itself back home, where the traffic would matter little to the car`s owner as they would not be in it. There would also be an increase in traffic milling around or parked waiting for their owner or other passenger, particularly in and around the evening peak.

    Systems to collect the parking price from driverless cars sent to park in pay parking would be needed (but probably not to difficult).

    Free on street parking would also be snapped up further out from the CBD and in locations with little to attract passenger carrying trips.

    Families with 2 or more people employed and/or being educated at the same time, in different places, will still want more than one car. The car ownership rate in wealthy families with teenage children will likely increase as they will no longer need to have a drivers license to use a car.

    The days of driverless cars being on the roads are soon but them being in a near monopoly is far off. There are many people who like driving and would still want to drive themselves. This will diminish over time as more people grow up with driverless cars, but this will take a lifetime.

    The speed increases partly depend on all cars being driverless and so would be held off foe some time.

  14. Socrates

    I am not opposed to the concept of driverless cars, but I think their benefits have been overstated. they will help with safety, but much les with capacity. Various papers expoiund on their ability to get more throughput on freeways, as electronically controlled cars zoom along more cloesly spaced. The trouble is that lane capacity is rarely the major constraint on freeway capacity. It is more often capacity at interchanges, weaves and on- and off-ramps. At these, human beings will continue to be the limiting factor.

  15. suburbanite

    This is the most balanced piece on driver-less cars you have written, but while I share your sense that it will be inevitable (in a longer time span) I think you are making a lot of overly optimistic assumptions. There is nothing inherent in the technology that will make people more sharing and less resource hungry. These are both possible with existing technology and could be encouraged through better pricing and policy – this is technological “Solutionism”, as a substitute for improved policy (which I admit seems intractable at the moment).

    The guaranteed benefits of DC’s will be a lowering of accidents, increased speed and increased access – for the well off.
    The likely costs will include, increases in km’s travelled as vehicles travel around empty so they can be shared by family members and other new types of trips you mention. Increased commute distances enabled by higher speeds and eliminating unproductive time spent driving.
    As for vehicles getting smaller/more fuel efficient, I don’t see any reason why this would happen just because the car is driverless. If anything they might get bigger to accommodate all the extra activities that could be undertaken in cars such as entertaining, sleeping, eating and other tasks associated with leaser.

  16. Robert Porter

    Very good article. However, one major social consequence that was omitted involves jobs. Many jobs will be displaced as a result of fewer crashes, for example: auto body shops, insurance adjusters, and road repair crews. Other jobs will morph. Lawyers who handle DWIs will have to find different work. Signage and signals installations will change a lot.

  17. pjrob1957

    This is an area of unknowns and there will be alot of conjecture.
    One thing that might happen, due to the apparent reliability of the vehicles in regard to their sensing of the presence of people on the road, is that pedestrians and cyclists may begin to really reclaim the roads.
    Of course, risk-compensation will kick in as it always does, and I can also envisage an annoyed pedestrian or cyclist holding up the progress of a driverless car, content in the knowledge that there is less likelihood the computer will react like an irate driver.

  18. Burke John

    Resistance to driverless cars is more likely to be economic rather than political or technological. If a pedestrian were hit the liability would be upon the manufacturer instead of the driver, surely not an attractive investment.

    DCs, EVs etc only incrementally address the problems of mass private car ownership in cities and ignore the growth of the middle class worldwide.

    Whereas DCs are likely to arrive on our streets I hope that those with a serious interest in transport solutions find more favour in a future with CVs, carless drivers.

  19. Dylan Nicholson

    Acknowledging the fact that most grand predictions about the future of society tend to end up looking silly, it’s really hard to see how this technology won’t be significant force for change, and I’ll even confidently say that the benefits will significantly outweigh the downsides. Indeed I’d already decided I’m not buying a car until such technology is readily available and affordable.
    The first big up-takers will probably be taxi and car-rental companies – I’d think taxi-driving as a career hasn’t got much life beyond the next 10 years (which is unfortunate, as it is a job that many immigrants use to get a foothold). I think there will surely be measurable drop in the average # of cars owned per household – I suspect it would have happened anyway (the whole ‘peak car’ thing), but this will definitely speed it along, as surely one of the main reasons families feel the need to own multiple cars is not because they literally all need to be travelling in different directions at different times, but simply because there are still a large number of households where one parent takes one car to work, where it stays all day, whereas the stay-at-home parent only needs a car for trips during the day.
    I can’t foresee too much political resistance to allowing driverless cars on the road, but I can see a fair bit to the inevitable decision that eventually most roads will be reserved ONLY for such vehicles – indeed I’d be the first to protest if that included banning bikes from such roads (which would be silly because as a cyclist I’d feel immensely safer knowing the cars around me weren’t controlled by irrational and easily-distracted humans).

    But yes, it will be a game-changer, and I do wonder just how much thought has been given to such technology by the powers-that-be.

  20. hk

    A timely introduction of the concept of social cost (or social capital) into the evaluating of impact of more driverless vehicles, and other high tech solutions into transportation system optimization. Are the social cost benefits to be measured in terms of dollars and cents or the increased amount of quality time potentially made available to people?

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