Driverless car era could reshape urban landscape

The world may stratify into two modes: high-volume rapid transit and driverless vehicles

I didn’t really think it was possible to develop a practical driverless car. Until Google did it. (See for yourself: search “Blind man in driverless car.”)

Already you can buy a “self-parking” car using the technologies, and just a few weeks ago, California joined a few other states in legalizing the testing of fully automated vehicles.

I still wonder what the lawyers will do to the “auto-auto” when the first serious accident happens – but nonetheless, it’s on its way, and such an imminent prospect has unleashed a tsunami of speculation.

What a blessing, for instance, for those too young to drive, for those too old to drive safely, for the disabled, the inebriated and the texting distracted.

So does this mean that the streets will be crammed with driverless vehicles?

I expect just the reverse.

A car remains idle about 95% of the time – not a particularly efficient return on your investment. But what if you could send it out into the world to earn money until you need it, especially when the cost of such cars will initially be much higher?

Then the obvious question: why do you need a personal car at all? If there are literally tens of thousands of quasi-taxis all around you, immediately available with a click on your smartphone, why not just pay for the service, not the hardware?

Concerns about safety, damage and hygiene? Just become a member of a vetted private pool, rather like car-sharing today, that might number in the thousands.

Still, even with all the new possibilities, a relative handful of cars might be able to provide much of the non-peak demand: more use in far fewer cars.

Say goodbye to the taxi industry. And goodbye to the bus, say some, forecasting the end of transit.

Not at all, counters transportation blogger Jarrett Walker: the sheer amount of space required makes the prospect impossible – at least in compact centres during rush hours. The world may stratify into two modes: high-volume rapid transit and driverless vehicles. Plus walking and cycling for short-trip commuting and recreation.

Will driverless vehicles, however, encourage even more sprawl?

Maybe not. Think about the impact on the vast amounts of parking currently required. Who needs parking lots when the cars are in close-to-continual motion, especially when there are dramatically fewer of them needed to serve the population?

And it’s parking that creates commercial sprawl – all that asphalt separating all those tilt-up boxes.

Paradoxically, driverless cars might lead to more compact urban forms, especially when land prices adjust to take advantage of the freed-up space. Other forces might then shape our residential communities, allowing for gentler and more affordable densities not constrained by the need for as much expensive in-house parking.

There’s also another constraint on unlimited use of driverless vehicles: taxes. With a loss of fuel taxes as a source for transportation infrastructure, government would find it much easier to introduce road pricing.

With the software seamlessly integrated into the vehicle, trip costs could be billed to take into account time of day, length of trip, degree of congestion, type of fuel, size of car – instantly calculated, deducted from your transportation account and made visible in a way that voters would object to if done on their personal vehicles.

Privacy concerns? You bet. Driverless cars will provoke all sorts of lawyerly fodder. But the most interesting case will be the one where it’s clear a fatality could have been avoided if the driver had engaged the automated technology.

In other words, how much liability will you as a driver be taking on by controlling the vehicle yourself – and will you be able to afford the insurance?

Not only is the era of the driverless car soon to arrive, it might be followed by the end of human-driven car. •

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