Automated Driving

My friend Tim Lee has an article up at Ars Technica on a subject I’ll admit I haven’t given much thought to — what would/will the social consequences of self-driving cars be?

On the second page he makes a number of observations that are relevant to my transportation and planning interests. One is that if cars didn’t need drivers, then taxis would become relatively cheaper. You could imagine quickly and easily ordering a self-driving cab from your cell phone or some such. Tim says that “when self-driving taxis are readily available, many people—even far from dense urban areas—will find renting both cheaper and more convenient than owning a vehicle.” I’d be a little bit skeptical of that, but at a minimum I think what you can say is that you’d see much lower rates of car ownership among people who do live in-or-near fairly dense areas — the sort of places where you could expect such cabs to be widely available.

Perhaps more interesting is the idea that self-piloted vehicles could revolutionize our understanding of parking. To make drivable suburbanism viable, each person needs one dedicated parking space right adjacent to his or her house, plus another dedicated parking space right adjacent to his or her office, and then on top of that each retail establishment needs to be immediately adjacent to a number of parking spaces roughly equal to the amount of parking needed at peak demand times. But obviously most of the time it’s not peak demand at the mall. And most of the time your car isn’t parked at the office. Each car is maintaining a huge space footprint. On top of that, in order to prevent free riding on people who’ve already built parking lots, regulatory schemes are put in place demanding that all new construction involve new parking facilities meaning that space is used less-and-less efficiently.

But a self-driving car could drop you off at work and go back home. What’s more:

[A]s Brad Templeton points out, parking lots would work differently if cars could move themselves at a moment’s notice. We can only park today’s cars in places where we’re sure they won’t be in anyone’s way. But cars that can move themselves could park in lots of places—in front of driveways or fire hydrants, in strangers’ driveways—that ordinary cars cannot. If they find themselves in someone’s way, they can quickly move and find somewhere else to park. The same point applies in parking lots. Self-driving cars can safely double- or triple-park, dramatically improving space utilization. When a car needs to leave, it can signal its neighbors to move out of the way and let it get through.

Then with less space dedicated to parking lots, development will naturally become denser which further makes a model more oriented around some walking plus some taxis rather than individual car ownership look appealing.

I’d want to think about this more, but it’s all very interesting.