How the self-driving car might make our cities better and greener

self-driving car
via Tom Vanderbilt

TreeHugger has been following the development of autonomous cars like the the Google Self-driving car, but what are the urban planning and design implications of it? At NRDC Switchboard, Kaid Benfield and Lee Epstein wonder if automating the car will make life (and the environment) better. They are not convinced.

Fully automating highways may make traffic move more quickly and safely (if everything works as planned, right?) for a while, but what will they mean over time for the human and natural environment? Won’t the new types of roads eventually fill up just as the old ones have? Would such beautifully flowing, electronically choreographed, completely automated cars and intersections be compatible with fully and adequately accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists in a well designed, walkable urban environment? If so, how, exactly?

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? What set of ethics should accompany this bold new technology?

So many questions! And not many answers. In the end, Kaid and Lee wish all the geniuses would concentrate on making our cities better.

Just because it’s high tech doesn’t make it better. Indeed, there are lots of “old fashioned” things we need to get right about our cities, urban regions, and transportation systems before we play with expensive new technology that still doesn’t solve those basic problems: we would place a higher priority on ensuring that cities are safe, hospitable to all, walkable, a pleasure to be in, and green.

I rarely disagree with Kaid Benfield, but I wish he and Lee had looked at some of the larger, longer term implications. Last year the Institute Without Boundaries put a lot of smart people in a room to think about the issue. They concluded that the autonomous car is going to evolve into a very different vehicle .

martiniInstitute Without Boundaries/via

  • Imagine a city without parked cars or garages. Since the car doesn't need a driver, it can go and move somebody or someone else. That's why they will mostly be shared.
  • Imagine a city with perhaps 90% fewer cars; that's the percentage of time most of us park our cars, but the autonomous ones are always on the move so we don't need as many.
  • Imagine a city without traffic lights or stop signs. They are not needed anymore since cars just flow through each other's streams of traffic at intersections.
  • Imagine a re-greened city with boulevards and trees where there used to be multilane roads, parks instead of parking lots.

pat renderingInstitute without Boundaries/Screen capture

Henry Ford is purported to have said "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." The autonomous car is at that "faster horse" stage, where we think of it as being pretty much what we have now, driven by robots. I suspect it is going to be as different a mode of transportation from what we are driving now as the car is from the horse.

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.

How the self-driving car might make our cities better and greener
Kaid Benfield and Lee Epstein have doubts about the benefits of the autonomous car. They are missing an opportunity.

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