Would Autonomous Cars Change the Urban Landscape?

It’s no longer a purely hypothetical question, reserved for Tom Cruise movies.  Self-driving cars are here.  Thanks to Google.


According to this morning’s New York Times, Google is already driving – or should I saw “testing”? – robot-controlled cars on trafficked U.S. streets and highways.  And while such cars are “years from mass production” and involve countless legal issues , the real possibility of autonomous autos could change their relationship with their urban environment forever.  How?

The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption.

…There is even the farther-off prospect of cars that do not need anyone behind the wheel. That would allow the cars to be summoned electronically, so that people could share them. Fewer cars would then be needed, reducing the need for parking spaces, which consume valuable land.

In an age of New Urbanism, the cry for fewer cars on the road has never been louder.  The demands on infrastructure from wide-spread car use are well-documented.  The only real alternative currently is denser communities in order to make public transit a viable and convenient option.

Problem is, today most people don’t live in dense neighborhoods.  So, is a safer and more efficient car another potential alternative to a world of gridlock and smog?

18 thoughts on “Would Autonomous Cars Change the Urban Landscape?”

  1. I’m ready for it, and the technology really is there – just look at the progress that has been made over the course of a very short time by entrants in DARPA’s autonomous vehicle challenges.

    Unfortunately, I expect years of delay as law enforcement and insurers fight them to forestall the revenue losses that would result from autonomous vehicles.

    I also suspect we’re much more likely to see these on the interstates first, as it’s much harder to drive in urban areas/city streets.

  2. I am completely opposed to the mindset that says “humans shouldn’t drive themselves.” This is the ultimate expression of an generations worth of nanny technologies, designed to keep drivers from hurting themselves while doing dumb things on the road.

    While the advent of ABS, airbags, etc has been a boon for the safety of motorists, I believe we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns—in fact, we could be creating more dangerous motorists.

    Take for example a recent Benz commercial. A solemn man says “I didn’t know that the car in front of me stopped short, but my Mercedes-Benz did.” Am I the only one who thinks this man shouldn’t be let behind the wheel of that car? Identifying a car that has stopped prematurely is a task you, I, and our grandparents needed to learn in order to safely operate a motor vehicle—why is this competency suddenly optional?

    Sorry to rant, but I’m hugely opposed to a future that involves automatically piloted vehicles for anything other than mass transit. By definition, the advent of “autodrive” will precipitate a behavior change on the part of us “manual drivers.” At best, we’ll have to learn a new “rules of the road.” At worst, we could face a situation that takes the right to “manual drive” away from those that are competent, attentive drivers that do not require a robot’s intervention.

    Think thats extreme? Tell me that if parents had the option to require every car passing the schools on College Ave to be “autodriven” and electronically limited to 25 mph, they wouldn’t use it.

    Technology is not a substitute for attentiveness and personal responsibility!

    1. I sympathize with your views in general, but I am not sure we know enough about how this technology would work in practice to make many judgments about it yet.

      For example, would the auto-drive cars be on the same road with manually driven cars? Would each have a dedicated set of lanes?

      If, on the other hand, is to move to a world in which no one drives a car manually, then this idea is probably toast. Asking millions of Americans to give up their cars is a very hard sell — to say the least. Plus, it is one thing to have these in urben centers. But the idea doesn’t seem necessary — much less workable — everywhere. So if you live in Atlanta or Dallas, you can’t drive your own car, but if you live in Stillwater, you can? Unclear.

      Then there’s the issue of cost. The idea is years away from mass production. My question is, how far out is cost-effective mass production? If each car is $50,000, where on Earth will all the money come from to buy them?

  3. Technology is available for some forms of mass transit to go on “auto” and navigate themselves. But ultimately they need a human in charge.

    When you talk about the actual driving of a car, the steering part of it, this just doesn’t seem like the best idea.

    I’m not opposed to change and if it’s for the better, then let’s try it out. But I’m skeptical on this.

    When Google has actually mastered the art of directions perhaps I’ll change my mind.

    I can see it now
    “Your car dinged my car!”

    “No, it didn’t. I wasn’t in it, but I know my car is a very good driver!”

  4. The legal roadblock to this is huge.
    Once you take the licensed driver off the controls who is legally responsible for the operation of the motor vehicle? Will car manufacturers take the bet that their automation system is that good? Will your insurance company? Wouldn’t it be better and cheaper to approach the issue through the three E’s? Environment, Education, Enforcement.

  5. On top of my curiosities about how an autonomous might affect the urban fabric, I have a lot of hesitations with this potential technology.

    Even beyond the legal roadblocks and costs, would people be comfortable with giving a computer the freedom to control a vehicle that can go anywhere?

  6. Screw “autonomous” cars– where are the ding-danged FLYING CARS? Shouldn’t those be a priority? Just so it can officially be called “the future”, you know…

    1. If people drive land-based automobiles this badly, I don’t want to see what idiotic things they’d do in a flying car.

      1. For the humour-impaired: the above was strictly tongue-in-cheek. I have a long-running joke on this board about flying cars.

  7. I would be satisfied to be able to load my car on a train or truck and have it and its contents delivered promptly in Savannah.

    1. Isn’t that the same as just calling a taxi? Seems a lot cheaper and easier for me to call a taxi for a $6-10 ride than to own a $50,000 autonomous vehicle. The liability issues are enormous, too, as other responders have pointed out.

      1. Not sure about that. In one sense, the liability issues may be easier to deal with. Now, drivers/peds/cyclists are at risk of being hit by an uninsured motorist. Unless you have coverage for that — which in most cases is a small policy anyway — you get absolutely nothing as compensation for injuries/property damage.

        Now, replace all that with cars running on Google software. Google, unlike an uninsured driver, has many billions of dollars. It has money to pay your claim. There is also no issue of driver fault to deal with. If the car malfunctioned, it has to be the robot’s (read: Google’s) fault. So what defense would Google have?

        1. A passenger in a taxi/bus/train/streetcar has zero liability in case of accidents and damage. I don’t trust “computers” to drive correctly. Period. Since I work on a computer every day, I well know the glitches, worms, crashes, and craziness that any computer can experience, to my frustration and detriment of patience. Now you want me to put my life in the hands of this computer that can’t even operate properly and correctly sitting here on my little desk? GOOGLE is not perfect, and never will be.

            1. Unless EVERYONE used autonomous/robot vehicles, there would still be crashes — beyond those emanating from computer software malfunctions. I don’t see any gain in this concept, honestly.

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