Self-driving cars are the hype machines keeping the tech media on its toes. But for all their potential to disrupt the global automotive and taxi industries, they are also destined to have an equally massive impact on how we grow our cities and how we'll live inside them.
What are self-driving (autonomous) cars all about?
Self-driving cars are the future of how we’ll get around. Most of the key players in the field of autonomous vehicles (AVs) predict the first self-driving cars will be commercially available by 2020, will become commonplace by 2030, and will replace most standard vehicles by 2040-2045.
This future isn’t that far off, but questions remain: Will these AVs be more expensive than normal cars? Yes. Will they be illegal to operate in large regions of your country when they debut? Yes. Will a lot of people be afraid of sharing the road with these vehicles initially? Yes. Will they perform the same function as an experienced driver? Yes.
So aside from the cool tech factor, why are self-driving cars getting so much hype? The most direct way to answer this to list out the tested benefits of self-driving cars, the ones that are most relevant to the average driver.
First, car accidents. Six million car wrecks happen in the US alone each year, and in 2012, those incidents led to 3,328 deaths and 421,000 injuries. Multiply that number across the world, especially in developing countries where driver training and road policing aren’t as strict. In fact, a 2013 estimate reported 1.4 million deaths occurred worldwide due to car accidents.
In most of these cases, human error was to blame: individuals were stressed, bored, sleepy, distracted, drunk, etc. Robots, meanwhile, won’t suffer from these issues; they are always alert, always sober, have perfect 360 vision, and know the rules of the road perfectly. In fact, Google has already tested these cars over 100,000 miles with only 11 accidents—all due to human drivers, no less.
Next, if you’ve ever rear-ended someone, you’ll know how slow human reaction time can be. That’s why responsible drivers keep a fair amount of distance between themselves and the car ahead of them while driving. The problem is that the extra amount of responsible space contributes to the excessive amount of road congestion (traffic) we experience day-to-day. Self-driving cars will be able to communicate with each other on the road and collaborate to drive closer to one another, minus the possibility of fender benders. Not only will this fit more cars on the road and improve average travel times, it will also improve your car’s aerodynamics, thereby saving on gas.
Speaking of gasoline, the average human isn’t that great at using theirs efficiently. We speed when we don’t need to. We plow the brakes a little too hard when we don’t need to. We do this so often that we don’t even register it in our minds. But it does register, both in our increased trips to the gas station and to the car mechanic. Robots will be able to better regulate our gas and brakes to offer a smoother ride, cut gas consumption by 15 percent, and reduce the stress and wear on car parts—and our environment.
Finally, while some of you may enjoy the pastime of driving your car for a sunny weekend road trip, only the worst of humanity enjoys their hours-long commute to work. Imagine a day where instead of having to keep your eyes on the road, you can cruise to work while reading a book, listening to music, checking emails, browsing the Internet, talking with loved ones, etc.
The average American spends about 200 hours a year (about 45 minutes a day) driving their car. If you assume your time is worth even half of the minimum wage, say five dollars, then that can amount to $325 billion in lost, unproductive time across the US (assuming a ~325 million US population 2015). Multiply that time savings across the world and we could see trillions of dollars freed for more productive ends.
Of course, as with all things, there are negatives to self-driving cars. What happens when your car’s computer crashes? Won’t making driving easier encourage people to drive more often, thereby increasing traffic and pollution? Could your car be hacked to steal your personal information or maybe even remotely kidnap you while on the road? Likewise, could these cars be used by terrorists to remotely deliver a bomb to a target location? We cover these questions and much more in our Future of Transportation series.
But the pros and cons of self-driving cars aside, how will they change the cities where we live?
Traffic redesigned and minimized
In 2013, traffic congestion cost the British, French, German and American economies $200 billion dollars (0.8 percent of GDP), a figure that’s expected to rise to $300 billion by 2030. In Beijing alone, congestion and air pollution cost that city 7-15 percent of its GDP annually. This is why one of the biggest benefits self-driving cars will have on our cities will be their ability to make our streets safer, more efficient, and relatively traffic-free.
This will begin in the near future (2020-2026) when human-driven cars and self-driving cars begin sharing the road. Car sharing and taxi companies, like Uber and other competitors, will begin deploying entire fleets, hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars in major cities around the world. Why?
Because according to Uber and almost every taxi service out there, one of the biggest costs (75 percent) associated with using their service is the driver's salary. Remove the driver and the cost of taking an Uber will become less than owning a car in almost every scenario. If the AVs were also electric (as Quantumrun’s forecasts predict), the reduced fuel cost would drag the price of an Uber ride further down to pennies a kilometer.
By decreasing the cost of transportation to that extent, the need to invest $25-60,000 to own a personal car becomes a luxury more so than a necessity.
Overall, fewer people will own cars thereby taking a percentage of cars off the roads. And as more people take advantage of the extended cost savings of carsharing (sharing your taxi ride with one or more people), that will remove even more cars and traffic from our roads.
Further into the future, when all cars become self-driving by law (2045-2050), we'll also see the end of the traffic light. Think about it: As cars become wirelessly connected to the traffic grid and become able to communicate with each other and the infrastructure around them (i.e. the Internet of Things), then having to wait around for traffic lights becomes redundant and inefficient. To visualize this, watch the video below, by MIT, to see the difference between the traffic seen from normal cars with traffic lights and self-driving cars without traffic lights.
This system works not by allowing cars to move faster, but by limiting the amount of starts and stops they have to make in order to get around town. Experts refer to this as slot-based intersections, which has many similarities to air traffic control. But at the end of the day, this level of automation will allow our traffic to become far more efficient, allowing up to twice the number of cars on the road without a perceivable difference in traffic congestion.
The end of looking for parking
Another way driverless cars will improve traffic congestion is that they will reduce the need for curbside parking, thereby opening up more lane space for traffic. Consider these scenarios:
If you owned a self-driving car, then you can command it to drive you to work, drop you off at the front door, then drive itself back to your home garage for free parking. Later, when you're done for the day, you simply message your car to pick you up or pick you up at a predetermined time.
Alternatively, your car could simply find its own parking in the area after it drops you off, pay for its own parking (using your pre-approved credit account), then pick you up when you call on it.
The average car sits idle 95 percent of its life. That seems like a waste considering it's usually the second biggest purchase a person makes, right after their first mortgage. This is why the increasingly dominant scenario will be that as more and more people use carsharing services, people will simply exit the car at their destination and not even think about parking at all as the auto-taxi heads off to make its next pickup.
On the whole, the need for parking will gradually decrease over time, meaning that the sprawling football fields of parking littering our cities, and surrounding our malls and superstores, can be dug up and converted into new public spaces or condominiums. This is no small matter either; parking space represents roughly one-third of city space. Being able to reclaim even a portion of that real estate will do wonders for revitalizing a city's land use. Moreover, the parking that remains no longer needs to remain in walking distance and can instead be located on the outskirts of cities and towns.
Public transportation gets disrupted
Public transportation, be it buses, streetcars, shuttles, subways, and everything in between, will face an existential threat from the ridesharing services described earlier—and really, it’s not hard to see why.
Should Uber or Google succeed in filling cities with massive fleets of electrically-powered, self-driving cars that offer direct-to-destination rides to individuals for pennies a kilometer, it will be tough for public transit to compete given the fixed-route system it traditionally operates on.
In fact, Uber is currently rolling out a new ridesharing service where it picks up multiple people heading to a specific destination. For example, imagine ordering a ridesharing service to drive you to a nearby baseball stadium, but before it picks you up, the service offers you an optional discount if, along the way, you pick up a second passenger heading to the same location. Using this same concept, you can alternatively order a ridesharing bus to pick you up, where you share the cost of that same trip among five, 10, 20 people or more. Such a service would not only cut costs for the average user, but the personal pickup would also improve customer service.
In light of such services, public transit commissions in major cities could begin seeing severe reductions in rider revenue between 2028-2034 (when ridesharing services are predicted to grow fully mainstream). Once this happens, these transit governing bodies will be left with few options.
With little additional government funding available, most public transit bodies will begin cutting bus/streetcar routes to stay afloat, especially into the suburbs. Sadly, reducing service will only increase the demand for future ridesharing services, thereby accelerating the downward spiral just outlined.
Some public transit commissions will go so far as to sell off their bus fleets completely to private ridesharing services and enter into a regulatory role where they oversee these private services, ensuring they operate fairly and safely for the public good. This sell-off would free up huge financial resources to allow public transit commissions to focus their energy on their respective subway networks which will grow ever more vital in densifying cities.
You see, unlike buses, ridesharing services will never outcompete subways when it comes to quickly and efficiently moving massive numbers of people from one part of the city to another. Subways make fewer stops, face less extreme weather conditions, are free of random traffic incidents, while also being the far more environmentally-friendly option to cars (even electric cars). And considering how capital intensive and regulated building subways are, and always will be, it's a form of transit that's unlikely to ever face private competition.
All together that means by the 2040s, we'll see a future where private ridesharing services rule public transit above ground, whereas existing public transit commissions continue to rule and expand public transit below ground. And for most future city dwellers, they will likely use both options during their day-to-day commutes.
Tech-enabled and influenced street design
Currently, our cities are designed for the convenience of cars more so than pedestrians. But as you might have guessed by now, this future self-driving car revolution will turn this status quo on its head, reimagining street design to become pedestrian-dominated.
Consider this: If a city no longer needs to devote as much space for curb parking or to alleviate extreme traffic congestion, then city planners can redevelop our streets to feature wider sidewalks, greenery, art installations, and bike lanes.
These features improve the quality of life in an urban environment by incentivizing people to walk instead of drive (increasing visible life on streets), while also improving the ability of children, seniors and people with disabilities to navigate the city independently. As well, cities that emphasize bicycles over car mobility are greener and feature better air quality. For example, in Copenhagen, cyclists save the city 90,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
Finally, there was a time in the early 1900s when people often shared the streets with cars and carriages. It’s only when the number of cars began to increase substantially that bylaws were created restricting people to sidewalks, restricting their free use of streets. Given this history, perhaps the most interesting future self-driving cars might enable will be the throwback to a bygone era, where cars and people confidently move by and around each other, sharing the same public space free of any safety concerns.
Unfortunately, given the extensive technological and infrastructure demands needed for this Back to the Future street concept, its first wide-scale implementation in a major city will likely only become feasible by the early-2050s.
A side note about drones in our cities
A century ago when the horse and carriage dominated our streets, cities suddenly found themselves ill-prepared by the arrival of a new and increasingly popular invention: the automobile. Early city councilors had little experience with these machines and were fearful of their use inside of their populated urban districts, especially when early users committed the first recorded acts of driving while drunk, driving off the road and driving into trees and other buildings. As you'd imagine, the kneejerk reaction of many of these municipalities was to regulate these cars like horses or, worse, ban them entirely.
Of course, over time, the benefits of automobiles won out, bylaws matured, and today transport laws allow for the relatively safe use of vehicles within our towns and cities. Today, we’re experiencing a similar transition with an entirely new invention: drones.
It’s still early days in drone development but the amount of interest in this technology from today’s biggest tech giants indicates a big future for drones in our cities. Aside from the obvious uses related to package delivery, by the late-2020s, drones will actively be used by the police to monitor troubled neighborhoods, by emergency services to provide faster services, by developers to monitor construction projects, by not-for-profits to create amazing aerial art exhibitions, the list is endless.
But like automobiles a century ago, how will we regulate drones in the city? Will they have speed limits? Will cities have to draft three-dimensional zoning bylaws over specific parts of the city, similar to the no-fly zones airlines have to follow? Will we have to build drone lanes on our streets or will they fly over car or bike lanes? Will they need to follow streetlight traffic laws or can they fly at will across intersections? Will human operators be allowed in city limits or must drones be fully autonomous to avoid drunk flying incidents? Will we have to retrofit our office buildings with aerial drone hangers? What happens when a drone crashes or kills someone?
City governments are a long way from figuring out the answer to any of these questions but rest assured the skies above our cities will soon be far more active than they are today.
As with all new technologies, regardless of how groundbreaking and positive they may appear from the onset, their drawbacks come to light eventually—self-driving cars will be no different.
First, while this technology is sure to reduce traffic congestion for most of the day, some experts point to a future scenario where at 5 o'clock, a mass of exhausted workers calls for their cars to pick them up, thereby creating a traffic crunch at a specific time and creating a school zone pick up situation. That said, this scenario isn't that much different from the current morning and afternoon rush hour situation, and with flex time and car sharing gaining in popularity, this scenario won't be as bad as some experts forecast.
Another side effect of self-driving cars is that it may encourage more people to drive due to its increased ease, accessibility, and reduced cost. This is similar to the "induced demand" phenomenon where increasing the width and quantity of roads increases, rather than decreases, traffic. This downside is very likely to occur, and that's why once driverless vehicle use reaches a certain threshold, cities will begin taxing people who use self-driving cars alone instead of sharing a ride with multiple occupants. This measure will allow municipalities to better control municipal AV traffic, while also padding city coffers.
Similarly, there's a worry that since self-driving cars will make driving easier, less stressful and more productive, it may encourage people to live outside of the city, thereby increasing sprawl. This concern is real and unavoidable. However, as our cities improve their urban livability over the coming decades and as the growing trend of millennials and centennials choosing to stay in their cities continues, this side effect will be relatively moderated.
Overall, self-driving cars (and drones) will gradually reshape our collective cityscape, making our cities safer, more pedestrian-friendly and liveable. And yet, some readers may justifiably worry that the unintended consequences listed above could make the promise of this new technology a mirage. To those readers, know that there is an innovative public policy idea making the rounds that may address those fears entirely. It involves replacing property taxes with something entirely unconventional—and it’s the topic of the next chapter of our Future of Cities series.