Google has just now moved beyond outfitting off-the-shelf cars with the controls that make it self-driving and have taken the next inevitable step: recognizing that a self-driving car is a completely different vehicle. And as predicted by the Institute without Boundaries three years ago, it is smaller, slower, and lighter. As also predicted, it looks almost like an Isetta.
Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.
So clearly they are also going to be shared or self-parking as well.
We started with the most important thing: safety. They have sensors that remove blind spots, and they can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections. And we’ve capped the speed of these first vehicles at 25 mph. On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it.
Or as Will Harney, Director of Engineering and Development at Magna International said, it will be "like an Isetta that can run into a bridge abutment at full speed."
The implications of the self-driving car become apparent when you watch this video. Its main theme is how it will be great for great for seniors and aging boomers, keeping them mobile after they have hung up the keys. The video also shows how it will give more mobility and freedom to the blind. But there's a lot more. You see a kid alone in the car, you see a mom playing with her son. This changes everything about what the car does and how it is used.
The autonomous car will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them. Urban planners and theorists have to start thinking about this or we will screw it up again.
When I wrote that, I thought we had a few years to figure this out; now google has build a hundred of these things that will start running around this summer. We have to start thinking about this now.
The self-driving car will certainly affect our cities, given that you need far fewer cars when they are shared and they don't need parking, but the real revolution is in the suburbs, which suddenly make a lot more sense. Grandma isn't stuck in the house all day; the kids get driven to school and to soccer practice; mom can work while the car drives to the office. Parking lots and garages disappear as the cars are shared and always on the move. It's less Andrés Duany and more Woody Allen.
If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive. America’s car-dependent culture has been encouraged (and subsidized) for the last half-century; instead of bucking that trend, a driverless car culture remains car-dependent.
Tim de Chant says much the same thing:
Self-driving cars are one of the biggest threats to the future of cities... As people’s commutes are freed up for other tasks, including work, they’ll stretch their daily trips, once again allowing them to live where they want. And as we’ve seen, people want to live where they have more space.
Kaid Benfield and Lee Epstein worry that it will hurt our cities.
Could this be a step not forward but back, to an era when the emphasis was all about moving as many cars as possible as quickly as possible, rather than on creating better environments for humans that don’t rely so much on cars?
The driverless car changes everything in in our cities and suburbs, and it's here. I don't think anyone is ready.