5 ways autonomous vehicles will change cities (and the lives of their residents)

"It will be catastrophic, no doubt about it ... But we have to maintain the vision and push forward."

Autonomous cars have been zooming around streets for the last few years as both public and private entities toy with their possibilities. Google tested out its self-driving technology to the tune of over 600,000 miles last year alone, and California is currently taking public comment on allowing driverless cars on the road by the end of the year.

Car companies from Mercedes to Uber say they will have autonomous vehicles on the road in the next few years and, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group, more than 12 million fully autonomous vehicles are expected to be sold per year globally by 2035. Cities need to prepare, both for the transition period and for when human drivers are a thing of the past.

Smart Cities Dive spoke with various experts to predict the top five ways autonomous vehicles will change the transportation landscape in U.S. cities — and alter life for residents.

1. AVs will transform the use of space

The biggest difference cities will see when autonomous vehicles replace drivers will be how roads and parking spaces are used.

"Most of our urban landscape is built assuming someone is going to drive and park," said Blaine Leonard, the director of Utah’s Department of Transportation of intelligent-transportation systems.

With autonomous vehicles, driving will be more efficient. On highways, according to Leonard, a lane can move about 2,000 cars per hour. With autonomous vehicles, those numbers could go up 3,000 or 3,500 cars per lane per hour and reduce the need for building more roads. Parking could be even be more efficient, and one study notes that 30% of the traffic in the central business districts of San Francisco and Los Angeles traffic is due to drivers looking for parking spaces. Laws around how many parking spots must be built per commercial or residential buildings could also be reduced.

"Eventually, we'll be able to turn parking lots back into parks," Lyft co-founder John Zimmer wrote in Lyft’s Medium blog last September. "We’ll be able to shrink streets, expand sidewalks, and make room for more pedestrians."

It needs to be done with a plan, however, otherwise the spaces could turn into unused, uncared for spaces.

"Eventually, we'll be able to turn parking lots back into parks."

John Zimmer

Co-founder, Lyft

"What happens to garage space?" asked Sara M. Watson, technology critic and affiliate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. "In a well managed transition plan, it gets used up and becomes valuable real estate. But I imagine many places will suffer from in betweenness for a while. I'm picturing lots of underground clubs and squatter scenarios in the near future is cities with less planning resources or transition capital."

2. Some infrastructure will be changed

Improving paint jobs on the roads for lane lines and developing uniformed street signage will help the cars "see" better, but most roads are ready as they are for autonomous vehicles. After all, the testing is already happening on typical streets and highways.

"One of the nice things of the autonomous vehicle is we can do away with a lot of the infrastructure," said Christos Cassandras, a professor of engineering at Boston University.

In fact, some things can be done away with, like induction loops buried the road that count cars.

"It’s not a very accurate type of thing, so that can be replaced by GPS in cars," Cassandras said.

Traffic lights, which can be expensive, will also not be necessary. Or, if cities decide to keep them, they can be upgraded to talk to cars. In Salt Lake City, city buses are using dedicated short-range communications radios to "talk" to traffic lights on an 11-mile corridor. If the bus is running late, it can get preference at the lights.

"One of the nice things of the autonomous vehicle is we can do away with a lot of the infrastructure."

Christos Cassandras

Professor of engineering, Boston University

One infrastructure project that will likely happen involves installing fiber network and sensors along the roads that will get and provide data to self-driving cars. Utah has been building fiber along its highways for almost 20 years, and has nearly reached the entire length of I-15, its main interstate. Also, as part of Ohio's smart cities project, the state said it will spend $15 million to install fiber along a highway as a testing ground. Installing fiber and sensors could give researchers and cities data about traffic, and could also help projects like smart traffic lights.

"There is a lot of good technology for signalized infrastructure talking to each other with modern equipment," Leonard said.

But even sensors are not necessarily needed — the cars could do the work. Cassandras is working on an internet of cars project that would do much of the communicating and data gathering.

"We’re trying to create a specialized network for cars to talk to each other," Cassandras said. "If the cars can handle all the communication, we can do so cheaply and much more safely."

3. Incomes will be altered

There's been a lot of talk about how autonomous vehicles will disrupt the trucking industry, with the U.S.’s first driverless delivery of 21,000 cases of Budweiser dropped off in Colorado Springs last October. The trucking industry employs 1.7 million Americans and was the most common profession in 28 states in 2014. If you add delivery, taxi and ride-share drivers, that number goes up to 4 million

New York brought in $565 million dollars in parking tickets last year, and some places like Louisiana fund their public defenders with parking tickets. Of course, with less accidents and road work needed, there could be cost savings. Any gaps could be filled by taxing self-driving companies and robots, but more problem-solving on that front is needed.

A lot of the job problems will be dealt with on a state or federal level, potentially with a basic income. But Watson, who currently lives in Singapore, said that she worries about the social implications and pointed to older Singaporeans, who drive many of the city-state’s taxis.

"Officials here talk a lot about the workforce problem, and the aging population problem," she said. "So the self driving cars will help them get around when they are really old, but what are these guys doing for work between now and then? Of course this is a slightly different problem in different populations, but a still a similar social change to address."

4. Citizens will need preparation for riding — and crashing

In 2015, traffic deaths increased more than they had in half a century, according to data by the National Safety Council. The data shows that 38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2015.

Out of those, about 94% can be attributed to human error, according to Leonard. "This technology will greatly reduce these numbers,” he said.

Acceptance ratings vary from state to state, but Leonard said that as more drivers experience or see autonomous vehicles on the road, the comfort level should go up.

"We are afraid of the unknown, and this is unknown for a lot of people," he explained.

Even with these improvements, however, autonomous vehicles will still have accidents. Cities and their citizens need to be prepared to accept that no system is perfect.

"It will be catastrophic, no doubt about it," Cassandras said. "But we have to maintain the vision and push forward."

5. Cities will need to roll with the punches

For as much preparation as cities can do, there are still a lot of unknowns.

One shared autonomous vehicle could replace 10 privately-owned vehicles, according to a study from University of Texas. But if autonomous vehicles become so comfortable, public transit users could decide to switch to an autonomous car for their commuter.

"What we don’t know is what you will do as a consumer," Leonard said.

Other social changes due to technology, like more workers telecommuting and moving away from the cities, further makes it hard to plan. But with autonomous vehicles, cities have a shot at getting the data they need to build smartly.

"Whether we build it or not, they’re coming," Leonard said. "All of this data, all of this technology, will allow us to manage this flow in a better more efficient way."

Filed Under: Energy & Utilities Transportation
Top image credit: Max Pixel