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Driverless Cars: Good or Evil?

The media is awash lately in stories and opinion pieces about driverless cars, or autonomous cars as they’re also called. Whether it’s Google’s experimentation in this area, or traditional car manufacturers, the idea sparks imaginations on all fronts. How will they work? How do they intermingle with other cars? What will be their impact on car ownership?

All these are fascinating, but on this blog we focus on urbanity, and walking in particular. The question for today is, what will the impact be of driverless cars on our cities? How will it change how we use them, and how our places develop?


I’ve had a fun debate on this topic lately with some of my close friends. The thoughts run the gamut from the potentially positive impact to the disastrous. Stu Sirota, of TND Planning Group, thinks that driverless cars have the potential to ring in a new auto age, and thus a new round of suburban sprawl. I tend to think the opposite, since I can see how autonomous vehicles could make city life much more pleasant.

The cliché is true: only time will tell.

But it is fun to speculate. So, here’s my speculation.

First, I’d like to demonstrate that I have firm grasp of the obvious. It will be decades before the impact of fleets of driverless cars could even be known. Some serious technological hurdles still need to be overcome, especially when learning how to deal with those pesky humans that occupy our streets and sidewalks. Even if driverless cars are adopted en masse, we could be talking 20-50 years as a timeframe. And, it’s highly questionable if they would be embraced fully, given the diverse wants and needs of the buying public.

Setting that aside, for the sake of some fun futurism, I can see what seem to be a few obvious impacts of the technology on how we live:

  • If the technology is perfected so that the vehicles can co-exist with other traffic, they could very easily replace taxis as we know them today. Personally, I can’t wait for that. I use cabs regularly, and would greatly prefer a 21st century version of this service instead of the shady, often lousy service we have today in virtually every city.
  • For city dwellers, I could see how the vehicles would also take users away from public transportation. Now, there’s an important qualification here: it depends on cost. If fleets of driverless cars are roaming the cities and affordable, the discretionary user would very likely take that over a bus, and perhaps even a train (traffic permitting). But chances are this will be a more expensive service, so the transit-dependent population will be affected differently.
  • In walkable places, as more people use the technology, it would likely decrease the need for a large amount of off-street parking. Cars can be roaming around the city frequently, and also stored in more remote locations. That simply encourages more infill, and a more robust city life.
  • For those who choose auto-dependent places, the cars would also tend to make life better as well. Platooning the cars during rush hours can alleviate existing congestion to a degree. The presence of these vehicles would also likely decrease some of the other negatives, such as drunken driving problems, the need for parents to constantly be a chauffeur, etc.

In essence, I think this technology would likely improve the lifestyle choice of both the pro and anti-car crowds. I don’t see it as either a panacea, or a plague.

In truth, it’s hard for me to believe right now that this is much more than a futuristic fantasy. The concept has to overcome not just technological hurdles, but also our worldwide energy supply issues, climate change, and our own human nature that will have so many millions of people loathe to ever give up control of their vehicle to a machine. If my intuition is wrong, and it does become ubiquitous, look for it to displace technologies and systems that people find necessary, but undesirable.

But then, time will tell.

What do you think? What impact will autonomous vehicles have on our cities, towns and lifestyles?

Friday photo 1/25/13

Friday photo 1/25/13

Friday photo 1/18/13

Friday photo 1/18/13