By Jacob Bourne
“This will absolutely be the most significant transformation in our society — not just transportation — in at least the last 50 maybe 100 years. What will change? Everything,” said Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer, Zoox.
Zoox is a full-stack, stealth start-up based in Menlo Park that’s developing autonomous vehicles and the supporting ecosystem to make the technology market-ready. Rosekind was one of four panelists who spoke at a May 31 event hosted by Arup called, Adventures in Engineering: Autonomous Vehicles. He was joined by Will Baumgardner, principal, and transport & mobility leader at Arup, Melissa Ruhl, Arup’s transportation planner, and Darton Ito, deputy director of innovation & program delivery for SFMTA. Together they explored the looming question of what changes are ahead for the urban mobility landscape once autonomous vehicles become ubiquitous in the coming decades.
A point of major focus for discussion was the tremendous opportunities created by a shift towards the use of autonomous vehicles. Today roughly about 50-percent of land area in cities is used for roads and parking. In a future where proximity parking isn’t needed due to AV technology, that land could be repurposed and devoted to things like green space, additional modes of transit and more housing. It also presents an opportunity to redesign the built environment in a way that’s safer and more oriented towards people instead of cars. However, Baumgardner stressed that these opportunities are accompanied by risks in a landscape changed by the new technology. For example, the heavily computerized autonomous vehicles could be hacked, or the increased free time created for travelers who don’t have to be attentive to driving could lead to more vehicles on the road. Although industry experts can’t predict the future, the panelists were in agreement that we can start shaping the future that we want to see today.
“We can design future streets with today’s best practices and with today’s tools,” Ruhl concluded, following her presentation on street design. “We can do what we want for tomorrow, today. There’s nothing necessarily technically barring us from doing these improvements, so we should start designing future streets today.”
Taking immediate steps to design for people instead of cars is crucial as demand for parking is currently increasing in cities where average parking spaces require 300 square feet versus the 250 square feet occupied by the average employee. Ruhl highlighted current challenges such as overbuilt roadways with inadequate passenger drop-off space that lead to chaotic conditions. Shifting design focus away from cars could allow for two-way bike facilities, wider sidewalks, more passenger loading areas and a wealth of green space. The key is to incorporate flexibility in the design process in preparation for an uncertain future.
In 2015, 35,092 people died in the U.S. due to traffic accidents, 94-percent of which were caused by human error or poor decision-making. These statistics prompted Rosekind to assert that safety is the greatest rationale for autonomous vehicles. In his current work at Zoox, his goal is to reach zero traffic fatalities through continuous innovation and fine-tuning of the technology, accompanied by an overhaul of the existing automotive transportation framework that has led to an unacceptably high rate of traffic-related deaths. Rosekind and fellow panelists expressed hope for a potentially more promising future with autonomous vehicles but acknowledged the numerous variables in play that will ultimately shape the future, most notably human behavior.
“When we ask people in San Francisco what influences their travel decisions, a lot of it has to do with time and reliability,” explained Ito. “Can I get there in my allotted time and is it more or less predictable? With autonomous vehicles there are a lot of questions about human behavior and how long it would take to change some of the old habits that we have about travel. How likely are we to jump into a car with no operator and two or three other folks that we don’t know?”