Will self-driving cars change the way we live as much as the car did?

Every new form of transportation generates its own new urban form. Railways created whole new cities at their nodes; the streetcar begat the walkable streetcar suburb; the elevator, the high rise building; the car begat the postwar suburban low density sprawl. With the self-driving car, or autonomous vehicle (AV) much debate has focused on whether it will make cities better by removing all the parked cars and lost space, or whether it will kill them and promote more sprawl.

But the issue may be bigger than that. Just as the car changed the way we live, the form of our houses, the way we shop and virtually everything we do, An “architectural designer in cyberspace”, Chenoe Hart, thinks the AV might change everything again. She writes in Perpetual Motion Machines:

Once designers of automated vehicles are no longer bound by the outdated limitations of accommodating either internal combustion technology or human operators, they could move far beyond our present-day intuitions of what a car should look like.

Hart imagines a car that is much more like a living room; once there are no worries about collisions and no need to steer, there is no need to be sitting down, so people can feel free to move around. In fact, they might well feel more like RVs (or old VW vans) than cars.

camper bus photoVolkswagen ad/Promo image

…designers will be free to stretch wheelbases, raise ceiling heights, and specify softer suspensions to make that movement more natural and comfortable. And since the people inside wouldn’t necessarily need to see where they were going, a growing range of possible wall fixtures — storage cabinets, LCD screens, perhaps a kitchen sink — could substitute passenger convenience over views of the world outside. The elimination of the driver will mean the end of the car as a car.

In the 50s, Cunard used to market its ships with the tag line “Getting there is half the fun”, and this might soon be true of every trip we take, when “the time once spent in vehicles inertly waiting to arrive could now be filled with the same sort of activities we’d be doing if we were already there — or had never left.” In fact we might never leave, and might never actually be in a fixed location.

Our understanding of a house as a stable locus of physical and emotional shelter could become diluted. There would be no reason for homes to not also be vehicles. A range of new options for customizing these vehicle-home hybrids would emerge: Homes could be made up of modular docking pods, and specific rooms could be shared, swapped, rented out, or sent away for cleaning or restocking. Modern conveniences that we currently take for granted — such as being able to use a bathroom without needing to arrange for its presence in advance — could become tomorrow’s luxuries. The homeless would be the only people not constantly in motion, the people closest to retaining a fixed physical location called home. Stasis would become homelessness.

19331933/ London Transport Museum/Public Domain

Hart is actually just getting started; she sees the autonomous vehicle changing the way we think about space and time. She uses an example of how subway maps stopped being realistic representations of reality, but instead became abstractions of the system. (She mentions Vignelli’s New York map, but it was Harry Beck’s 1933 map that was the breakthrough. It was based on electric circuitry, showing how even then one new technology could transform an old one). Soon we might look at the world like that, with the idea of place becoming an abstraction.

The divergent aims and cross-purposes of individual drivers pursuing their goals would be subsumed by a swarm of vehicle-buildings coordinated across a shared network, moving collectively in fluid patterns. Extrapolate this principle, and one can see how dispersed low-rise communities of mobile buildings might replace fixed, vertically oriented cities.

There is much, much more here, including the end of cities as we know it. Chenoe Hart’s article may be more science fiction than reality; it is unlikely that we will be entirely giving up our cities for autonomous modular RVs. But it does make the point, very provocatively, that we don’t really know where we are going to end up with these autonomous technologies, and they might well change our urban patterns and our cities over the next hundred years as much as the car did over the last hundred. Seriously worth a read in Real Life.

Tags: Self-driving car | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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