The Autonomous Vehicle Future

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Autonomous vehicles need to navigate human nature and urban planning to thrive.

Machine learning, artificial intelligence, behavioral models, hardware design achievements, our newsfeeds are full of (often fascinating) articles following the advancements in an industry that promises to change—no, simplify—the way we think about mobility forever.

What about the cities in which these advancements are supposed to have the most positive impact? It seems unlikely that the layout of major cities and space utilization within them will be able to change as fast as driverless technology evolves. And one key reason why that could be important is that vehicle space in a city environment—parked or in motion—is a fixed resource. That available space defines the speed, efficiency, mobility and, ultimately, quality of life.

What’s the end game?

Potentially, there are many. If the goal is simply allowing people to reallocate their time from driving duties to other seated activities, autonomous vehicles will likely be judged positively. But there are some scenarios under which autonomous vehicles may not provide the quality-of-life benefits many are promising.

Here are a few thought-starters for discussion.


SCENARIO A: Potential Autonomous Vehicle Buyers Don’t Adopt the Mass-Transit Mentality

Consumers Reject “Public” Vehicles

They want to shed the stress of driving, but don’t embrace the idea of going everywhere in somebody else’s “public” vehicle. Many people take pride in ownership in their vehicle, but a substantial number don’t. If you have kids, is it okay to leave a few Cheerios on your way out or do you need to clean the vehicle before you leave? If you chew gum, is it okay to leave the wrapper—or the gum? What will people be willing to put up with if required to share vehicles?

New Vehicle Purchases Convert to Autonomous Vehicles

If new vehicle purchases convert to private autonomous vehicle purchases, the total number of vehicles in the urban environment changes little.

Autonomous Vehicles Dramatically Slow Overall Speed of Traffic

While the number of vehicles on the road may remain static, overall speeds could slow (dramatically?) based on the machines’ need to avoid all accidents. What will ultimately be determined as the maximum amount of damage/injury the public will accept from an autonomous vehicle?


SCENARIO B: Current Vehicle Owners Convert to a Non-Ownership, Ride-Share Mentality

Vehicle Volume Decreases

The overall number of vehicles entering the city center (gradually) decreases.

Parking Structures Are the New Ghost Towns

Parking structures have more empty spaces, but that space cannot be readily repurposed. You won’t have a vehicle in your garage anymore, so additional vehicle storage facilities shouldn’t be needed.

On-Street Traffic Increases

On-street traffic could dramatically increase, as the cars previously stored in parking structures would now circulate while waiting for riders. Will the parking structures mentioned above become holding lots for vehicles waiting for riders?

Rush Hour Gets (Even) Longer

Rush hour commute times could lengthen as owned vehicles “dead-head” home or out of the city center to wait lots.

Are any of these written in stone? No, but they should all be considered as we navigate through the realities of a true autonomous vehicle future.

“As an urban planner… and like most people in my field… I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities.” (U.S. News & World Report, October 3, 2018) ~ Daniel Piatkowski, City Planner from the University of Nebraska

If our thought-starters have sparked some thoughts of your own, please share them in the comments below and let’s continue this conversation.

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