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Driverless car era could reshape urban landscape

November 13, 2012

My Business in Vancouver column:

I didn’t really think it was possible to develop a practical driverless car. Until Google did it. See for yourself:

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Already you can buy a “self-parking” car using the technology, and just a few weeks ago, California joined a few other states in legalizing the testing of fully automated vehicles.

I still wonder what the lawyers will do to the “auto-auto” when the first serious accident happens – but nonetheless, it’s on its way, and such an imminent prospect has unleashed a tsunami of speculation.

What a blessing, for instance, for those too young to drive, for those too old to drive safely, for the disabled, the inebriated and the texting distracted.

So does this mean that the streets will be crammed with driverless vehicles?

I expect just the reverse.

A car remains idle about 95% of the time – not a particularly efficient return on your investment. But what if you could send it out into the world to earn money until you need it, especially when the cost of such cars will initially be much higher?

Then the obvious question: why do you need a personal car at all? If there are literally tens of thousands of quasi-taxis all around you, immediately available with a click on your smartphone, why not just pay for the service, not the hardware?

Concerns about safety, damage and hygiene? Just become a member of a vetted private pool, rather like car-sharing today, that might number in the thousands.

Still, even with all the new possibilities, a relative handful of cars might be able to provide much of the non-peak demand: more use in far fewer cars.

Say goodbye to the taxi industry. And goodbye to the bus, say some, forecasting the end of transit.

Not at all, counters transportation blogger Jarrett Walker: the sheer amount of space required makes the prospect impossible – at least in compact centres during rush hours. The world may stratify into two modes: high-volume rapid transit and driverless vehicles. Plus walking and cycling for short-trip commuting and recreation.

Will driverless vehicles, however, encourage even more sprawl?

Maybe not. Think about the impact on the vast amounts of parking currently required. Who needs parking lots when the cars are in close-to-continual motion, especially when there are dramatically fewer of them needed to serve the population?

And it’s parking that creates commercial sprawl – all that asphalt separating all those tilt-up boxes.

Paradoxically, driverless cars might lead to more compact urban forms, especially when land prices adjust to take advantage of the freed-up space. Other forces might then shape our residential communities, allowing for gentler and more affordable densities not constrained by the need for as much expensive in-house parking.

There’s also another constraint on unlimited use of driverless vehicles: taxes. With a loss of fuel taxes as a source for transportation infrastructure, government would find it much easier to introduce road pricing.

With the software seamlessly integrated into the vehicle, trip costs could be billed to take into account time of day, length of trip, degree of congestion, type of fuel, size of car – instantly calculated, deducted from your transportation account and made visible in a way that voters would object to if done on their personal vehicles.

Privacy concerns? You bet. Driverless cars will provoke all sorts of lawyerly fodder. But the most interesting case will be the one where it’s clear a fatality could have been avoided if the driver had engaged the automated technology.

In other words, how much liability will you as a driver be taking on by controlling the vehicle yourself – and will you be able to afford the insurance?

Not only is the era of the driverless car soon to arrive, it might be followed by the end of the human-driven car.

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UPDATE: Grist reports on how the auto industry wants to keep aging boomers on the road:

Automakers are banking on boomers being able to stretch out their driving years with the aid of safety technologies — like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning systems and blind-spot monitoring — that are becoming more common in cars. The transportation needs of millions of boomers aging in the suburbs may build greater public acceptance of automated cars that drive themselves. Some states already permit road testing of these vehicles.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Ladner permalink
    November 14, 2012 4:04 pm

    Good one, Gord. Thanks for alerting me to this. I saw Lombard St. in a whole new light after seeing the video.

    I’m in SF at the Verge conference, attending sessions on disruptive technology in transportation. Lots more than just this…

    My columns to follow.

    P.

    Peter Ladner Columnist

    http://www.biv.com peter@peterladner.ca 604-760-1445 twitter.com/pladner

  2. November 15, 2012 12:27 pm

    Nice piece Gordon. A couple of additional thoughts for your readers.

    1. UBC has a great robotics team. The money (and therefore focus) is currently in mining, where huge trucks have been driverless for years: in Oz they’re very good at avoiding Kangaroos. However they should also be collaborating with Bombardier to bring driverless buses to Canada.

    2. DUI is a serious problem in rural BC. Also rural BC is looking for ways to attract business. Therefore rural BC municipalities should offer themselves to UBC to test robotaxis.

    3. Vancouver’s software community should be making the UI for these taxis: seamless integration with Compass, beautiful onboard personalisation (“it looks like you’re at soccer practice: would you like me to come back in an hour?”)

    4. Of course robotaxis must be electric, making these a great climate stop-gap while suburbia is retrofitted with real town squares, etc. Indeed, automation is the killer app for electric vehicles, completely removing any range issues (robotaxis go charge themselves when needed; they could even daisy-chain for longer trips). Tesla, Fisker, Better Place, etc. should be all over this.

    5. I like Grist’s boomer angle: the trend is your friend. But the legacy auto makers are used to volume production, everyone owns their own car. Instead the robotaxi model is shared fleets, which plays into the hands of the startups.

  3. November 15, 2012 12:27 pm

    Make Collision Avoidance Technologies Standard, National Transportation Safety Board Urges http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/make-collision-avoidance-technologies-standard-n-t-s-b-urges/?src=recg

  4. November 15, 2012 4:59 pm

    I’ve been thinking about automatic cars myself in thinking about whether the region ought to make a big rapid transit push – so Gordon will see the Millennium Line finished in his lifetime – or whether technological change will make rapid transit obsolete in the long term. I do suspect that better electric and electric assist bikes will make inroads into transit usage for shorter trips especially in dense areas where trip lengths are shorter and especially if we get some all-weather covered bike paths: bicycle expressways. But I don’t expect automatic cars to replace rapid transit for three reasons.

    Space. Cars, even smaller cars, do require space on the road. At certain sizes and densities, there simply isn’t space for everyone to be in a separate vehicle.

    Urban quality. Fast traffic is tremendously degrading to the urban realm just because it is so unpleasant to be next to it. One advantage of automatic cars would be to speed them up because they will run into each other so less often. But in an urban setting, that won’t be possible without buried ROW’s, and buried ROW’s are much more efficiently filled with subway trains than with cars.

    Health. Having door to door automatic service might be appealing, but it isn’t good for us. Having walk or bike trips at either end of rapid transit stations is something that we ought to consider a feature and not a bug.

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  1. Why some of us won’t be in driverless cars « Price Tags

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