When I was a kid, I loved Arthur Radebaugh's wonderful series Closer than we think, with its predictions of what he thought was the relatively near future. It seems that we are living through an era of significant change that is closer than we think, particularly when it comes to issues like self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs). The role they will play in our cities is one of the most contentious issues in urban planning these days. Will they save cities, ruin them or just be a big bust? And are they closer than we think?
Peter Walker of the Guardian talks to Anand Babu of Sidewalk Labs, a google spinoff, who “believes cities could be fundamentally reshaped by the mass arrival of shared, driverless cars, something he forecasts to happen sooner than many people think.”
Driverless cars, Babu says, could have a particular impact in expansive US cities, making often moribund outer suburbs easily accessible and more attractive, in turn relieving the pressure on people to live in the centre. With mass driverless car sharing, he argues, you would need far fewer vehicles overall, leaving neighbourhoods much more attractive for walking or cycling.
Babu believes there is “tremendous latent demand” for people to live in communities based around walking and bikes. As he sees it, the suburb (or inner city) of the future would see people hop on a bike either for local trips or to access to the next, more rapid form of transport, be it a driverless car or public transport.
The trouble is, there usually isn’t much around that is useful that suburban residents can actually get to on a bike. The road networks are designed for cars, with culs de sac and other planning devices that make walking or cycling difficult and distances long. I have trouble understanding how AVs fundamentally change the dynamic of how you get to the store in the suburbs, other than making it easier for people too young or too old to drive.
As Walker notes, there are also other ways to look at it.
Rachel Aldred, a transport expert at the University of Westminster, argues that various visions are feasible. “There’s an alternative and scary future where people become more individualised – they shove each of their children into a driverless car to go to school,” she says. “And people could spend a lot of time in driverless cars. I’m not saying that is going to happen, but there are different trends, potentially, that you might see.”
Walker concludes that “The transport revolution is coming. You’ll just have to wait to see precisely how it looks.”
Alternatively, Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal that the “fully autonomous” car is a long way off, despite recent claims by Elon Musk and other car companies.
To many industry insiders, these claims are largely hype. They’re not false, but they abuse the terms “autonomous vehicle” and “self-driving,” which evoke images of hopping into a car, entering a destination and disappearing into sleep, food or our phones. That is not what we’re going to get by 2021. It won’t happen for a long time, maybe decades. It is all about the definition of autonomous and self-driving.
Most of the industry experts that Mims talks to suggest that on certain well-mapped roads we might have cars driving themselves. But otherwise they will likely just be a driver assist.
In the near term, “self-driving” cars will resemble Teslas, with their “traffic-aware cruise control” that can maintain a safe following distance, change lanes and stop in an emergency. Then we’re likely to see vehicles that don’t require drivers but can only operate on a fixed, well-mapped route in cities with fair weather, such as from the airport to the Las Vegas Strip.
Mims says it will be “many years before we get cars that can truly go anywhere. Even the skeptics agree that self-driving technology is coming, will save lives and eventually become part of nearly all vehicles. But don’t expect it by 2021.”
TreeHugger has been quoting Christopher Mims and his predictions about technical progress for many years, on issues ranging from 3D printing to smart phones to coffee machines, and I do have to admit that he is usually right.