Envisioning the Driverless City

Tesla, GM Ford Audi Toyota Mercedes-Benz Uber Google San Francisco ARUP Driverless cars Driverless City Bay Area Milton Keynes

automobile-sensors-talking-carsNew technology will not only bring innovation to transportation, but also development and land use.


By Robert Carlsen

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter years of research and development, along with equal doses of speculation and conjecture, the era of driverless cars and autonomous vehicles is coming soon to a city or town near you, thanks to the extended efforts of technological innovators; carmakers such as Tesla, GM, Ford, Audi, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz along with newcomers Uber and Google; and state governments, such as those in California, Nevada and Florida.

Keeping a watchful eye on the progress of this new wave are two principals from the San Francisco office of the global engineering and consulting firm ARUP, John Eddy and William Baumgardner, who see, initially, the creation of driverless zones in major cities where the vehicle and infrastructure systems can be fine tuned.

So what’s the timetable for this vision? The timing of seeing driverless cars and zones “depends greatly on the willingness of the elected representatives and their constituents to embrace the benefits and accept challenges,” said Eddy. Though technology development is still racing along, the challenges are proving more vexing than some anticipated, he said, adding that his timetable has shift-ed to at least 2020.

“The technology for fully driverless (no steering wheel, no brake pedal) is very close to operating out on our streets today, but the remaining challenges for the technology developers are, of course, the hardest to overcome,” he said. “Unpredictable behaviors of humans, whether they are driving, walking or cy-cling, are continuously being analyzed and programmed by the driverless tech-nologists. Our species is very much capable of doing the unexpected, and pro-gramming the driverless vehicle to cope with the myriad of ‘unexpecteds’ is proving to be tough.”

Eddy added that for cities that are willing to embrace the technology, an area of a city that is either entirely autonomous or at least entirely connected is proba-bly three years away. Low-speed driverless will come within a few years and ARUP’s work in Milton Keynes, UK, supporting a team that will be rolling out small driverless electric vehicles that operate within the city’s core on sidewalks and plaza areas should be up and running in a year, two at the latest, he said.

Real estate developers will also take advantage of a driverless society since around 50 percent of developed land is used for car storage, the ARUP princi-pals say. With an on-demand-Uber/Lyft-without-drivers scenario, these parcels will change from surface parking lots and garages to residential, office and commercial properties.

Driverless-as-a-service will hasten the pace of the shedding of the personal ve-hicle ownership model, Eddy said. “We anticipate the fleet size dropping and an even further drop in parking demand,” he said. “Parking demand drops more than fleet size if we consider that driverless cars can ‘rest’ in under-utilized street and highway lanes during off-peak travel times along routes dedicated to connected and driverless cars. Less of a fleet to park and dual-purpose street and highway lanes free up a lot of single-purpose real estate.”

Baumgardner said that current thinking has a shared automated vehicle poten-tially replacing eight to 12 cars that are parked 95 percent of the time and that self-parking technology will be here before a fully shared, fully autonomous world. “Self-parking will create a virtual valet scenario, potentially increasing parking efficiency by 20+ percent,” he said.

Eddy said he believes the driverless fleet will grow quickly for two reasons: cost and efficiency. “There is a general consensus that per mile costs for driverless-as-a-service will be less than per mile costs with our current ownership model,” he said. “We often don’t account for added ownership costs such as buying or renting real estate to house our personal car and our time to find parking and to maintain the vehicle. After driverless matures sufficiently for us to consider jet-tisoning our cars, the very next mile we drive in our manually operated car will be more costly than driverless.

“This will grab the market and cause fleet turnover that we haven’t seen since the horse and buggy became a novelty with the introduction of the Model T,” Eddy said.

Plus, younger generations are becoming more “car-lite” and are waiting longer to get a driver’s license; they are not in a predictable car buying mode and are more active in the shared ridership model. And they are more inclined to also use public transportation, according to a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association.

And add to this the freeing up of our time while we are traveling, better pre-dictability of travel time, faster travel times (with driverless cars moving within six to 10 inches from the car in front of it at top speeds), not to mention less noise and air pollution and, down the line, solar roadways, it’s hard to see why we would want to operate a car.

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