By Neal Peirce
What will the coming revolution of "autonomous driving" -- self-driving vehicles -- mean for our cities and metropolitan regions?
The answer is a lot. Eventually.
For decades, cars and trucks have had some automation with cruise control. Manufacturers have been phasing in automated parking for advanced models since 2003. Backup and lane-change warning systems are installed in some auto models. And at this moment there are many experiments to open an era of totally driverless cars -- including lasers, cameras, radar and similar technologies, spearheaded by such firms as Google, BMW, Toyota, Volvo and General Motors.
But don't look for zero-driver vehicles on roadways soon. State laws have uniformly required that motor vehicles have drivers, and that drivers must be able to control their vehicles. Some laws even prohibit vehicles from steering, braking or accelerating by themselves. Still, Nevada, Florida and California have recently allowed driverless vehicles, at least for testing purposes.
But a nationwide switchover to full and legal use of driverless vehicles could take many years -- and a lot more proof of their safety. "We believe the individual should always have the ability to disengage and take over the system of a vehicle," James Pisz, Toyota's North American corporate business strategy manager, told a recent "Meeting of the Minds" policy conference in Toronto.
In the meantime, more and more features for fully automated driving -- assuming the legal driver's still able to take control -- will be appearing. They'll include mapping technology to steer to target destinations. Plus electronics to move in street and freeway traffic, react to flow and stops in traffic, and avoid hitting bikers or pedestrians (even, Pisz suggests, "a black-clad figure at night").
And then there's the formidable list of new issues to resolve. Will drivers need special training to control a self-driving vehicle? Will vehicles be able to speed -- or will they be stuck at the speed limit even on an emergency trip to a hospital? Will a driver be allowed to text? If a self-driving car gets in a collision, does blame fall to the driver or the manufacturer?
The first totally driverless vehicles may be relatively slow-moving vans, operating on strictly defined routes to serve campuses, from parking to downtowns or sports events.
Bottom line: Truly independent, self-driving vehicles won't change our urban and metro form soon. But in 10 to 20 years, they might. And what might happen then? How will the life of cities and metro regions be changed?
One theory is that we'll see a return to the unrelenting suburban sprawl America experienced from the end of World War II to the advent of the Great Recession. Why bother to live in the city, goes this theory, if you can live miles out, cruise to work texting, reading or sleeping, count on computer systems to minimize your actual travel time, and then step out of your car at your destination and tell the vehicle to go off and find a parking space for itself?
But that may not be the ideal life for the vast numbers of people who actually value city -- or suburban center -- life. We're into a new century with new tastes. A significant share of today's youth and families is showing less interest in driving, or in retreats to suburban getaways with multicar garages. Their pick, instead: the dynamism and attractions of urban living. Plus, current-day urbanism isn't just being celebrated in big city centers -- it's present in increasing numbers of lively neighborhood and suburban centers developing around our metros, and in small cities too.
There also are the advantages that automated driving can bring to cities themselves. A major scourge on urban landscapes has been the millions of parking slots thought necessary to draw anyone to live, work or recreate in their downtowns -- a policy that's delivered sterile garages, even uglier open-air parking lots, and flight to boring suburban corporate campuses.
In an era of driverless cars, it will be different. One will be able to step out of one's personal auto for work -- or a movie, or a dinner at a restaurant -- and then let the vehicle drive itself to (and come back) from its designated peripheral parking slot.
Or, in many cities, take a convenient transit ride home. Or ride one's own bike, or pick up a bike share.
To a degree, all this depends on a reasonably prosperous national economy. But given that, one can expect lots of infill slots for residences, stores and other urban activity taking shape. We'll see denser, more walkable centers across the country, as smart developers note consumers' wish for lively mixed-use settings. In the end, my bet is that driverless cars won't stop all this activity -- they'll just abet it.
Neal Peirce's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.