Imagine a world where driverless cars rule the road, navigating their way across an integrated network of connected cities, while sharing data with infrastructure in real time.
Truly “smart cities,” in which transportation systems all communicate with each other (think cars with traffic signals, for example), may seem far off, but futurists and economists alike say it will happen sooner than you think.
In fact, autonomous technology already exists, and its proliferation will have profound implications on the built environment.
The race is on
Automakers and technology companies, including Google, Tesla and Uber, are racing to develop self-driving cars and have them ready for purchase within the next 10 years, and a number of groundbreaking pilot programs are currently underway. Nearly 20 million fully autonomous vehicles are estimated to be on the road by 2025, according to Juniper Research.
There will be a huge restructuring in terms of what people do and how many are employed doing it.
As urbanization takes hold and an increasing number of people flock to cities over the next few decades, experts say self-driving vehicles will help reduce collisions, energy use and carbon emissions, while dramatically improving urban mobility and quality of life.
“There are so many implications of autonomous cars that are far-reaching, on the workforce, on real estate and the way we live our lives,” says Keith Orlesky, vice president, practice leader of planning and urban design for the Americas, at AECOM, a global infrastructure and design firm.
“There will be a huge restructuring in terms of what people do and how many are employed doing it.”
Google is testing self-driving cars in California, while Tesla founder Elon Musk recently claimed the company’s cars will be able to pick you up by themselves and drive you across the country by 2018.
Piloting programs on autopilot
In November, Ford became the first automaker to test an autonomous car at the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a 32-acre simulated “smart city.” Part of the University’s Mobility Transformation Center, Mcity was designed to recreate a complex urban environment, complete with intersections (plenty of opportunities for collisions), a four-lane highway and fake, jaywalking pedestrians that unexpectedly cross the street to test how a self-driving car would handle various situations.
But the project that is arguably the biggest step forward for autonomous technology is a pilot program testing on-demand driverless taxis on public roads in Singapore, a variation of personal rapid transit that could transform urban mobility.
Changing more than driving habits
The rise of autonomous vehicles, coupled with collaborative models like Uber, is among the most transformative trends of the future, largely because it will make it easier for people and goods to move around more freely, Elie Finegold, senior vice president of global innovation and business intelligence at CBRE, told Blueprint, presented by CBRE, recently.
It may also change infrastructure needs by cutting down on the number of cars on the road or in parking lots.
“I think we’re going to see cars stop being individual purchase decisions, and people are going to start buying time in the vehicle instead of the vehicle itself,” says Orlesky.
Young Americans drive less than older Americans and use public transportation more.
“Many young people today don’t want to own a car, they don’t want to park it and they don’t want to pay for insurance—they could care less,” Orlesky says. “The huge thing with the autonomous cars will be the fact that the reliance on the car can be reduced.”
In the U.S., where car culture was once pervasive, the number of high school seniors with driver’s licenses dropped from 85 percent in 1996 to 73 percent in 2010, according to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group study released in 2014.
“Young Americans drive less than older Americans and use public transportation more, and often use multiple modes of travel during a typical day or week,” according to the study.
Self-driving cars would also offer opportunities for redevelopment of spaces previously used for personal cars, from parking spots on the street to parking decks, creating a competitive market for space utilization.
“We have this vast amount of real estate dedicated to this stuff,” says Orlesky. “We’re seeing a lot of people who are now saying, ‘How can I build a parking structure that I can turn into something else when I don’t need it?’ Then the question becomes, do you build something that’s more like a building and less like a parking deck, which is more expensive, or do you build it in a less expensive way, because it will ultimately be temporary and come down? It’s fascinating.”
Getting ready for an autonomous future
But as autonomous technology moves full speed ahead and automakers push to get vehicles on the market, a larger question remains. Are cities ready?
There are still a number of issues—both regulatory and infrastructure-related—that could bring the smart city concept to a slow crawl.
In a study released in November, the National League of Cities found that only 6 percent of cities are planning for or thinking about the potential effects of driverless car technology.
Experts warn that if cities aren’t retrofitted properly with smart infrastructure, many of the benefits of autonomous cars will be lost.
The U.S. federal government recently pledged to expedite regulatory guidelines and invest $4 billion, over the course of a decade, in research and financing infrastructure projects to help bring autonomous cars to market.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this month, members of the Forum’s automotive committee met to discuss regulatory issues and urge governments to work closely with the private sector to draft policies on the technology.
While there are still some hurdles to overcome before we’re zooming to the airport in self-driving cars, one thing is certain: Autonomous technology not only has the potential to change transportation; it will shape the future of cities around the globe.