Cars & traffic

Nov 15, 2017

How will driverless vehicles change our cities?

Once the difficult transition period when human controlled vehicles are still common is over, a world of fully driverless vehicles should be a lot different from today

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Interior of Mercedes Benz F015 driverless car (via ABC)

Driverless vehicles are undoubtedly coming, but how will they change our cities? There’re two eras here; the transition period when driverless and conventional vehicles share road space, and the potential utopia (or dystopia?) when all cars are fully autonomous.

The transition would be enormously complex, both because human drivers are imperfect and because the algorithms controlling driverless vehicles will have difficulty dealing with the sometimes capricious and fickle nature of human drivers and pedestrians.

I’m going to take the easier option and consider a world where driverless cars have completely replaced human-controlled cars. In this world, many of the problems that loom large at present – like legal liability, ethical choices, hacking, imperfect algorithms – have been solved.

The main promised benefits from a fully driverless world are:

  • The near elimination of crashes and the associated personal and material costs
  • Significantly lower travel costs, mostly from the ability to use in-vehicle time in productive and enjoyable ways
  • An increase in the traffic capacity of roads due to closer travelling
  • Parking facilities shifted to less strategically valuable locations

It’s also often argued that fewer vehicles would need to be manufactured and fewer parking spaces provided because driverless vehicles could be shared. However, that’s not down to driverless cars; we could already enjoy most of those benefits if we chose to e.g. via taxis and share cars. It’s more accurate to say driverless vehicles would provide the opportunity, or the pretext, to adopt a new model based on sharing.

Here are some of the key ways a fully driverless city might be different from today’s world:

  • We might travel more because time spent in-vehicle would be much less onerous if you could sleep, work, or do pretty much anything, in private. Moreover, there’d be a temptation to send the car off on errands without a passenger e.g. to fully automated shops. This would work against the promised increase in road capacity.
  • We might live further away from work and other destinations, again because the “cost” of travel would be lower. A potential implication is an expansion in regional living, although this might be counteracted to some extent by the growing preference for cosmopolitanism. The already flawed notion of the “20-minute city” would look even sillier.
  • High capacity public transport would still be necessary to shift large numbers of travellers e.g. to and from the CBD. Driverless trains should cost less to operate, permitting very high frequencies. Shared driverless vehicles operated by the transit manager should provide a much more attractive way of travelling between home and the station than conventional buses, as well as improving cross-town services.
  • Lower travel costs might encourage firms to locate in centres where they could benefit from agglomeration economies. In that event, many jobs in dispersed suburban locations should migrate to the CBD and a select number of larger suburban job centres.
  • Lower freight costs should reduce the size of trucks and vans required within cities.
  • There might be tighter regulation of activity and land uses along major roads so driverless vehicles have an easier environment to ‘read’. This is more likely to be a compromise dating from the transition period and should disappear as AI gets better.
  • There might be a large net loss in jobs, especially semi-skilled jobs like truck and bus drivers. At least some of those losses should be offset by job gains in other areas where money previously spent on drivers would now be spent instead.

The problem of additional travel could be addressed if the existing model of private ownership of cars were replaced by a sharing model akin to the way taxis currently operate:

  • Driverless vehicles could only be “rented” as needed by users; this would reduce the size of the fleet and the number of parking spaces required
  • Travel is paid for by the kilometre/hour and weighted by the level of congestion; this would moderate usage by making the cost apparent.

From today’s perspective, abolishing private ownership of vehicles would be extremely difficult but in my view it’s essential to deliver on the potential benefits of driverless vehicles (see also Would a world of driverless cars be all beer and skittles?).

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5 thoughts on “How will driverless vehicles change our cities?

  1. Steve Hutchison

    Driverless vehicles are going to be truely revolutionary for our society. As revolutionary as the Internet has been in my opinion. Our cars will become a place for work as well as a place for entertainment and rest. Car interiors will be completely redesigned with that in mind. We’ll be oblivious to the congestion because we’ll be busy doing other things. Sure, people will want to get home to see their families but you’ll be able to leave for home earlier because you can work during the commute so you’ll get more time with family. It will force employers to put in place state of the art tele-communiting facilities which will facilitate a lot more working from home. And it’s going to be fantastic for people with mobility issues such as the elderly and people with disabilies. The opportunities are awesome.

  2. James R

    It’s worrying that driverless technology isn’t being rolled out on our already separate right-of-way systems like rail. The tech already exists for these networks, so what is holding back their implementation? Public transport systems will need to fight back against the growing tide of automated vehicles if they are to hang on to patronage. Driverless trains, trams, and buses would significantly reduce the cost of these systems relative to now. Allowing increases in frequency and even potentially route extensions. Sure, jobs will be lost but these whole systems might come under threat if they are not strategically managed. You only have to look back at what happened to tram networks in cities that faced private vehicle ownership growth in the 1950s-60s (i.e. Sydney) to see a historical parallel.

  3. Socrates

    I agree with Josh that the claim driverless cars will reduce traffic congrstion is at best unproven and at worst false. They will probably increase traffic congestion. The claim about greater capacity from cars following closer together is exactly the same as the claims (by IT salesmen) about ITS technology that were made in the 1990s. 20 years later they remain unfulfilled. I am not aware of a single real world trial, even on test tracks, that has proven a capacity benefit. And as Josh said, if they encourage more driving, the problem gets worse.

    One real benefit could be improved mobility for people now unable to drive. So for example frail elderly could remain in their own homes longer and more easily drive themselves or get food delivered. This could help aged care a lot in our aging society. But it wont change the shape of our cities.

    Driverless cars are being proposed by car companies scared of falling sales, not transport planners. The safety benefit is real, since after all most road deaths involve a single vehicle, but I have serious doubts about the rest of the claims.

  4. Josh B

    Interesting thoughts on increased regional living as I’ve long dreamed about using a driverless car for long distance travel, but I could definitely see self-driving “bed & shower” commuter models being created.
    As I’ve looked into self-driving cars more I’ve slowly become more convinced that they are a going to result in more congestion rather than less, especially during the transition period. The only way that self-driving cars can reduce congestion is through more efficient use of the road space, but I just can’t see how that will offset the increased usage and “dead running” of unoccupied vehicles. Street capacity is likely to be limited by intersections which will certainly get more efficient, but even if you can’t see the traffic light themselves I imagine they’re still going to exist digitally under heavy traffic conditions.
    Highway capacity is supposed to be increased running cars closer together, but I don’t think they can run that much closer together as even a fully automated system’s reaction time is hampered by physical constraints such as breaking times, engine (or electric motor) capabilities, vehicle mass, road conditions, etc. Even if they are capable in theory of running closer legislation will probably enforce larger than necessary vehicle spacing to prevent that one in a million chance of a falling tree branch causing massive fatalities. Considering current automated guideway systems isolated from external traffic are unable to run at significantly closer spacings than existing roads, I just can’t see how there is going to be a significant increase in road capacity with the introduction of automated cars in an integrated road network (especially since most humans tailgate already). The “cars running centimetres apart” notion seems especially unrealistic considering the numerous things that could go wrong in a real world setting, it would only be possible if they were moving really slowly.

  5. Tom the first and best

    What ever ownership model is adopted, there will be an increase in traffic, especially counter-peak traffic, where vehicles move to free parking locations or to pick up their next passengers.

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