The recent death of a woman who was struck by an autonomous vehicle (AV) in Tempe, AZ has raised further questions about whether cities are ready for AV technology — and whether the technology is ready for wide use.
As car companies and ride-hailing apps roll out testing of AVs, cities must plan for a future where more self-driving vehicles are on their roads, and how the technology will affect the streetscape, parking requirements and land use, among other factors. "Really, that low-tech approach is vital to that high-tech approach," Danielle Burr, Uber’s head of federal affairs, said during a panel discussion to mark the launch of the Congressional Smart Cities Caucus earlier this month.
Preparations and improvements could start with something as simple as fixing potholes and ensuring lane markings on city streets are visible and consistent. In an opinion piece for Smart Cities World, Michelle Caulfield-Harris of United Kingdom-based software company Clearview Intelligence bemoaned the degradation of street markings over the years as budgets have shrunk. "Unless we address these infrastructure requirements soon, we risk having amazing new vehicles that we are only able to use some of time, on some of our network, and not in towns and cities where we most need the safety and congestion benefits autonomous vehicles offer," she wrote.
Another thing for cities to consider is whether AVs should be in dedicated lanes, at least during a likely transition period when they will need to share space with human-operated vehicles. A report by the Center for Automotive Research last year noted dedicating lanes to AVs could raise questions about fairness, as AVs would initially only be used by a select few people.
Jennifer Henaghan, deputy director of research at the American Planning Association, told Smart Cities Dive that while dedicated lanes could help ease the transition, it could be difficult given the constraints already on cities’ right-of-way and a lack of space to further widen their streets. "If we’re talking about limited access highways with multiple lanes, it’s very easy to cordon off one of those for AVs and might make sense, particularly as we’re in this transition of an almost live testing phase," she said. "But that’s not going to work as well when you’re talking about more of an urban environment where the street right-of-way is already very busy and very limited."
Pedestrian facilities and bike lanes, too, could be impacted by the growth in AV usage. Henaghan said there are two schools of thought — "dystopian vs. utopian" — on whether people will walk more or less in the future.
The "dystopian" view is that AVs become so readily accessible that walking even three blocks will be deemed unnecessary, while the "utopian" view argues that more AVs will mean more pedestrian activity with less human-operated cars around. "To do that, you’re going to need to say, 'Alright, we need to make sure we preserve space for people to walk and have sidewalk cafes and that sort of thing within the public right-of-way, but also figuring out how we’re going to deal with these AVs,'" Henaghan said.
Cities also need to consider upgrades to their intersections, so that connected AVs can communicate with traffic signals to ensure a smooth ride. Research out of the University of Michigan found "smart" intersections can be tampered with, but work is ongoing to make systems foolproof, including in cities like Detroit and its surrounding communities.
In theory, the ability to hail an AV to ferry passengers from one place to another could mean less space for parking is needed, especially in terms of surface lots and garages. An automated parking garage in Oakland, CA can fit more cars as humans do not need to move around it, while AVs may not require on-street parking if they are constantly picking up people and dropping them off. Wired noted some parking garages have been made retrofittable, so they can be reused if the need for parking spaces decreases.
If the growth in AV use means less need for parking, cities may need to decide what to do with excess surface parking lots and parking garages — something Henaghan called "one of the great opportunities" for planners.
Companies are already exploring how to change parking lots and garages, especially if those AVs also run on electricity and need to be charged. Massachusetts-based WiTricity is working on a car charger that uses patented magnetic resonance technology to transfer power wirelessly from a charging panel on the ground into the car. With humans not required to plug the AV in to charge it, the car could take itself to recharge at any location that has the infrastructure. "The AV can then do a short duration charge or a long duration charge, and it doesn't require it to have a person to physically plug it in, and it can be much more autonomous," Grant Reig, product manager at WiTricity, told Smart Cities Dive.
If the growth in AV use means less need for parking, cities may need to decide what to do with excess surface parking lots and parking garages — something Henaghan called “one of the great opportunities” for planners. It could free up space in urban centers for other uses, a welcome boon for some cities struggling with an influx of new residents but a lack of space for them to live in.
“Should it be used for housing, do we want more people to come in? Do we need more retail space? Should it be more places to encourage civic gathering spaces and public activities, parks and things of that nature?” Henaghan said. “That really gives cities an opportunity to examine their values and priorities and what it is that they want to do with this sudden influx of available land, which in many cities has been quite a rarity up until this point.”
Henaghan said the best thing city planners and elected officials can do is educate their colleagues and their citizens about AV technology and make them realize such innovations are not far away from becoming a reality. "From a planning perspective, I think it’s good to be able to put things in terms that people can understand," she said. "The term 'autonomous vehicle' is very techy, it’s not very friendly and it sounds like something that’s going to happen in the future."
With automakers' AV research in various stages, cities clearly need to look beyond the technology on the streets ahead of their wider use and consider their impact on other infrastructure.