Sunday, June 7, 2015

Thinking About Cities with Driverless Cars

If you haven't thought much about the advent of driverless cars, this recent article by Thomas Fisher, outgoing dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, makes a good introduction.

I've read about the cars' possible effect on traffic and parking. Did you know there are three parking spots per car in this country? That's a lot of wasted space that will become available rapidly as cars stop being something you own and instead become something you call for when you need one.

Fisher quotes John Eddy, a leader at the engineering firm ARUP, who recently presented at the Science Museum of Minnesota:

“The first driverless cars will be part of fleets providing mobility services — sort of a cross between car sharing and a taxi service,” he said. And by “lowering the total cost of driving by 40 to 70 percent over the cost of traditional car ownership,” he added, along with rising insurance rates for those who want to keep driving and cause most of the accidents, driverless technology will see rapid and widespread adaptation.
I hadn't considered the likelihood that the cost of insuring a human-driven vehicle will go up once driverless cars become the norm.

Eddy also said that “Every major car manufacturer, many of their suppliers and some of the biggest tech companies are developing fully automated vehicles to operate alongside our current fleet of manually operated vehicles” with the entire car industry becoming a mobility service rather than a seller of objects.

Car2Go -- owned by Fiat (Chrysler) -- is an early version of this. Even though the cars are still driven by people, they are deployed across an entire city and parked on the street in any legal parking spot for free. Add in the ability of the car driving itself to pick you up instead of you having to walk to get to the car, and they've got a system already set up for driverless cars.

Fisher concludes the article:
When car-sharing fleets have driverless cars, we will be able to buy a mobility service for about a quarter of the cost of owning and driving our own cars. And with that will go the need for parking. We will call up a car that will take us where we want to go, dropping us at our destination and then moving on to its next call, like some automated chauffeur service.... This will reduce the number of vehicles by at least a factor of four [Eddy] estimates, and, except perhaps in the middle of the night, eliminate parked cars. “Imagine our cities without parking lots or houses without the need for garages and driveways,” said Eddy. Parking ramps may go the way of horse stables.

Streets will also change. Unlike our current road system, designed to reduce the accidents that come from human error, driverless streets will need only two lanes each way, Eddy said, a “through lane and a drop-off lane,” each narrower than what we have now [either nine or 10 feet, versus 11 or 12 now]. The added space in the public right of way can then go for bike lanes, wider sidewalks and the planting strips that make walking safer and more pleasurable, and keep stormwater cleaner and more on-site.

Driverless cars may also encourage greater density as mobility services charge by the distance vehicles travel and as response times improve accordingly. All of which will come as good news to governments struggling to maintain and repair the overextended infrastructure we have in place because of the automobile.

As with any technological disruption, there will be winners and losers. The winners include the 25 percent of the population, according to Eddy, who cannot drive: the elderly, disabled and youth; the poor, who will have access to vehicles at a fraction of the cost; and commuters, who waste the equivalent of one week a year stuck in traffic. Municipal budgets, public health, urban life and the natural environment will also benefit enormously from this change, as happened a century ago when cars replaced horses.

The losers? Those in the automotive industry who ignore the disruption headed its way; those living in remote locations who may have to pay higher rates to still drive a car, and those who deny that the American love of the automobile will ever end....
I wonder a bit about how payment will work for these driverless car fleets. Do you have to have an account that's billed to a credit card? Seems pretty likely in our increasingly cashless economy. How is that going to work for the poor, who supposedly will benefit so much from this change, but are often unbanked or have bad credit and can't get cards?

If the payments do go onto credit cards, they'll be at higher interest rates than the typical car loan, so that would eat up part of the savings.

And I wonder how all of these cars will be gassed up. Or if they're electric, what infrastructure is needed to charge them all?

Things to think about. I'm most interested in the effect on street size and the change in parking infrastructure. Getting rid of all that wasted space opens up the possibility not just for development in key areas, but possibly for affordable housing if enough pressure is brought to bear.

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