Here comes the robo-cars

Here come the robo-cars

From urban city centres to sprawling suburbs, autonomous vehicles are about to change everything. Are you ready? By Steven Barr.

Lets jump ahead a few years and assume we’re over the cynicism and skepticism that comes with the idea of driverless cars. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are coming and there’s no doubt about it. Some automakers say they will be consumer-ready by 2020, others by 2025 or 2030. Either way, driverless cars are about to change everything. They will change our cities and how we move people around them. They will birth new industries and kill others. They will stretch the boundary between the public and private realms. Autonomous vehicles will be the cognitive leap into a new era of automation.

The depth and speed of the transition to AVs will be determined by whether we fully embrace the idea now and start preparing. And like all city building exercises, it starts with a capital planning strategy that rethinks infrastructure investment. Namely, transportation infrastructure. Driverless cars are about the same number of years away as it takes to build and deploy a new subway or light rail system. The question is, why invest in costly, lengthy mass transit projects that may be rendered obsolete before they’re even completed? That is perhaps the crux of the driverless car debate: how do we prepare today so we don’t kick ourselves tomorrow.

Why are driverless cars great?

Robots are better drivers than us. Today 94% of car accidents are due to human error, with the three leading causes being alcohol, speeding, and distraction. According to the World Health Organization, accidents kill around 1.2 million people a year. A study by the non-profit Eno Centre for Transportation estimates that if 90% of cars on American roads were autonomous, the number of accidents would fall from 5.5 million a year to 1.3 million, and road deaths from 32,400 to 11,300.

As well as being safer, self-driving cars would drastically cut down congestion. They would not brake erratically or unnecessarily, and could drive nearly bumper-to-bumper to increase road use efficiency. A study by the University of Texas estimates that 90% penetration of self-driving cars in America would be equivalent to a doubling of road capacity. This efficiency gain alone would be huge for transportation planning and a reduced need for road expansion. 

We could also eliminate all traffic management fixtures that clutter our streets — stop signs, traffic lights, speed bumps — which are not needed for self-driving cars. The result would be a more attractive urban realm and improved streetscaping for pedestrians. Ownership is dead The great promise of driverless cars, however, is that no one will need to own one. The potential for this technology to be transformational is with an on-demand car-sharing model. In this future, the concept of car ownership is entirely an unnecessary burden. Cars today have an average utilization rate of 3%. In a driverless future, autonomous vehicles have constant utilization. We’re already seeing a growing trend of young people moving away from car ownership and this will be true across all groups. When you’re done with your driverless car, it moves on to the next customer, then the next customer, and so on.

With on-demand cars in near-constant use, there is also much less need for parking. Self-driving cars could drop off their customer and zip off to a centralized parking structure away from prime real estate. We could completely eliminate surface parking on our city streets and use those spaces for additional road capacity, or better yet for bike lanes and widened sidewalks. Condo buildings would have zero parking, and therefore no need to construct below grade. Below grade construction typically represents 20%–25% of the overall construction budget, so now buildings would be significantly less expensive to build, and by extension less expensive to own. Alternatively, maybe below grade parking does not disappear because it proves to be an efficient place to store self-driving cars for on-demand service in the downtown core. Underground garages designed for self-driving cars would have narrower parking stalls and drive aisles, lower ceilings, and would not need the same ventilation as today — again, translating to less costly below grade construction. And the garage could be rented to a private operator as a revenue source for the condominium corporation.

The Google Koala Car doesn't need a steering wheel, pedals, or windshield wipers—hop on in.

From the city to the exurbs

Autonomous vehicles free up space in dense urban environments for more meaningful land use, but we will also see an impact on the suburbs as these vehicles unlock the potential for habitation outside of mass transit centres. University of Utah researcher Dan Fragnant foresees a “simultaneous densification of cities, and expansion of the exurbs.” Fragnant argues that driverless cars would make it easier for workers to live farther out of the city because if you can sleep on the journey a longer commute becomes feasible. Riders in self-driving cars would be able to do other things, like work. Morgan Stanley estimates that the productivity gains would be worth $5.6 trillion worldwide. Autonomous vehicles would also democratize mobility and offer independence for the elderly and the disabled, while children could get to and from school without a parent chauffeur.

The Lutz Pod, produced by Coventry-based RDM Group, can seat two people and range at a top speed of 15 km/h for about 60 kilometres, or roughly six hours on a single charge.

So can we just abandon mass transit now?

Transportation is one of the most important factors in habitation. Cars, as they say, created the suburbs. Fifty or sixty years later, the shift in focus is to downtowns, with empty nesters, young families, and of course investors all vying for a piece of the action. The problem today is we champion public transit as the solution to our overburdened infrastructure but most often land use density does not support it. Definitely not in the suburbs, but even in the big city centres where transit ridership between rush hours is often too low to justify the capital costs for expansion.

Then there’s the politics. In Toronto, with its recordbreaking number of cranes in the sky, the in-place planning policies do not always promote an aggressive land use intensification strategy along transit networks and in support of expansion.

Yet in the “driverless cars versus transit” debate a common conclusion seems to emerge: we will still need mass transit where mass transit already exists—meaning, high density urban centres. An autonomous car takes up as much physical space on the road as a human-operated car. The Atlantic’s CityLab argues that yes we will be able to fit more AVs on the road because they can drive bumper-to-bumper but road capacity is finite and subways, LRTs, and buses simply carry more people. Subways may be underutilized outside of rush hours, but they move a heck of a lot of people every morning and every evening. Even a road full of driverless cars inches from one another could not match this efficiency.

It seems most likely, then, that the future of driverless cars will be part of a multi-modal transit system: an alternative to transit expansion in low population suburbia, a complimentary mode in busy urban centres, coverage in low-volume scenarios such as late-night service, and as the first mile/last mile connections to conventional bus and rail services that only get people “close” to where they want to go but not exactly there.

Moreover, mass transit will always be a more affordable mode of transportation. Driverless taxis would be less expensive than conventional taxis because you wouldn’t need to pay a human driver, but the same is true for driverless public transit that would also benefit from the lower operating costs of much higher-capacity buses and trains.

Driverless cars will undoubtedly change our cities. The public sector, for better or worse, will have a central role in determining the trajectory of change and must actively create conditions for this technology to flourish. There is good news: in October the Ontario

Government announced an upcoming driverless test car licensing program, joining California, Nevada, and Sweden on the frontier of AV policy research and development. Inevitably people will demand that their elected officials incorporate driverless technology into cities, so it would be essential that they get a jump on it now, beginning with the allocation of infrastructure funding that recognizes the rapid rate of technological change happening in front of our eyes.

And when they do, the future will be fantastic. UC

Steven Barr is a development manager at Urban Capital.


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