Autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the way we develop our cities in very positive ways. They could, in fact, be one more chink in the armor of the existing 'build it and they will come' model of auto-oriented suburbia with its wide roads and vast acres of parking.

When looking at autonomous vehicles, it’s important not to look at them in isolation or through the lens of our current transportation paradigm. They need to be considered in tandem with other trends, particularly ride sharing.

Photo: Flickr

Photo: Flickr

Ride sharing

Ride sharing services such as Lyft and Uber have seen huge growth. Much of this growth has been driven by millennials, with the cost of car ownership being a big driver. AAA estimates that the average car and its related expenditures costs $8,698 per year.

In many ways, this is a also about a fundamental change afoot in the relationship to the automobile. For younger generations, it is simply not the status symbol or ticket to freedom and a social life that it once was. It is simply a tool. And if it’s cheaper and easier to hail a Lyft or check-out a Zipcar for a few hours, that’s what an increasing number of people will do. 

Ride sharing services also have the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. A 2010 report from UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center found that one car-share vehicle removed 9 to 13 vehicles from the road, either because households decided to ditch their personal automobile or significantly delay the purchase of one.

Autonomous vehicles

Now, lets talk about autonomous vehicles. Specifially, their potentially positive impacts on land-use. For starters, autonomous vehicles should enable our roads to accommodate higher traffic volumes as cars will be able to travel closer together in narrower lanes since they do not have to compensate for human error.

Stacked citycars  Photo: MIT

Stacked citycars  Photo: MIT

Furthermore, we will not have to dedicate as much to parking them as they can be stacked and parked tightly since they won’t need door clearance. One of my favorite energy and climate bloggers, David Roberts, has been writing about the exciting intersection between autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles. Here’s his take on how they will save on parking space:

When they are not in use, AEVs could drive themselves to specially designated parking garages, where they could be stacked much closer than human-piloted vehicles and plugged into the electrical grid, where they can serve as distributed energy storage. There would effectively be no need for any other parking, especially on-street parking, and there would be no distracted, frustrated human beings driving around looking for parking.

SAV’s = sweet spot

Things get really interesting when we combine these two trends and get shared automated vehicles (SAV’s). Tech Crunch has an excellent piece that I highly recommend.

By eliminating the driver, autonomous vehicles will reduce the costs of ride sharing, making it a more affordable choice.

SAV’s could come with the same potential for reductions in vehicles on the road that we talked about earlier. Research from Daniel Fagnant, at the University of Texas, concludes that “each SAV could replace around 10 conventionally-owned household vehicles, with a fleet of 1715 SAVs serving over 56,000 person-trips [in Austin, Texas].”

Autonomous Nissan Leaf  Photo: Wikipedia

Autonomous Nissan Leaf  Photo: Wikipedia

The typical American car is in use only 4 percent of the day. The rest of the time it needs to be parked somewhere. SAV's will be in use a much greater share of the time, meaning less time parked. A reduced need for parking would allow for existing lots to be developed, creating more density in urban cores which will be beneficial to both the ride sharing services as well as transit. Bear in mind that buses will likely be able to drive themselves as well which could reduce the cost of transit.

Strong Towns member and contributor, Gracen Johnson, wrote a piece last year that sparked an excellent conversation. One of the comments I found most interesting was from Marcus Garnet, a professional community planner and transit advocate. He discusses some of the market ramifications of SAV’s (or SDV’s as he refers to them as. Btw, you know a trend is in its nascent phase when people still haven’t agreed on common terminology!).

In the long term, I expect many people will shift from car ownership to subscribing to a fleet of self-driving vehicles (SDVs). This could lead to three market-based pricing benefits.
Firstly, people will be less committed to using a car for everything, as they won't have sunk a big piece of their life savings into owning one (or two or three).
Secondly, the capital cost of a fleet car is more likely to be amortized and integrated into the mileage charge for using it.
Thirdly, the opportunity cost of the road space used could be easily calculated and billed, using the car's navigational software. That would enable road usage costs to be tied to space and time - and therefore available capacity - rather than fuel or electricity consumption.
If these three benefits eventually occur, individual car trips will be more costly, but people will be freed from the massive up-front investment or ongoing car loan debt. This will provide a better market pricing signal for each decision on whether to use the fleet car or to use public transit.

I find the possibilities laid out here fascinating. Better and more efficient land-use (goodbye flat surface parking lots?!), user data to provide more dynamic and sophisticated pricing signals for roads, and the potential for lower household transportation expenses.

For a deeper dive into all of this and more, I highly recommend David Levinson, a recent podcast guest and author of The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport.

Obviously, it is hard to tell how the future will shake out. I've intentionally skipped over the many questions and challenges to focus on the potential benefits. Nevertheless, I do think shared automated vehicles could not only be disruptive, but could lead to positive outcomes if we play our cards right.