Can Google Keep Its Self-Driving Car From Re-Igniting More Suburban Sprawl?

The new Google self-driving car. CREDIT: GOOGLE©
The new Google self-driving car. CREDIT: GOOGLE©

Google unveiled its new self-driving car Tuesday. It’s a tiny two-seater with no steering wheel or pedals, lots of extra sensors, and a foam front to protect pedestrians if there’s a crash. Its top speed is 25 miles per hour, its range about 100 miles and it’s a sign driverless cars are a step closer to transforming transportation, even if we’re not sure how.

While Google has been modifying existing cars to work on self-driving technology for years, this is the first to be designed around the concept. Google will be rolling out 100 of the cars to start, and they will be summoned and directed with a smartphone app.

Could this friendly-looking piece of technology spell the end of the close relationship between sustainable urbanism and fighting climate change?

For climate change and urbanism concerns, self-driving vehicles have been a source of some anxiety. The current trend is away from private vehicle ownership, toward more dense communities where public transportation, biking, and walking can serve most transportation needs. And that’s important, when automobiles are among the leading emitters of greenhouse gases. But the self-driving car could halt this progress.

Marchetti’s constant, the idea that an hour-long round-trip commute has been about the average that people are willing to make, is something that’s partially restrained sprawling suburbs from growing too far and helped push Americans back into cities in recent decades as traffic made commute times longer. But in a vehicle that could transport you from door to door while you take a nap, watch a movie, or drink a beer in relative privacy, the distinction between commute and life could blur, encouraging people to live farther from their places of work than ever before.

If the cars are deployed as many have discussed, as a sort of robot fleet of taxis, replacing personal car ownership with on-demand car use, they could even cut the costs of living in suburbia. As Lloyd Alter, who has written extensively on transportation for told ThinkProgress in an email, “the suburban lifestyle of the cul-de-sac and big lot becomes very attractive when you discount the cost of the car.”

Urbanists have been encouraged in recent years by the fact that millennials “are more interested in their phones than driving,” Alter said. A study by the American Public Transportation Association found that indeed, millennials value public transportation for “digital socializing” and so they can work while traveling.

An older self-driving car, a modified Lexus SUV. CREDIT: romanboed via Flickr
An older self-driving car, a modified Lexus SUV. CREDIT: romanboed via Flickr

What’s interesting is that self-driving cars could address some climate problems of transportation even as they wipe out recent gains in sustainable cities. If future models, like Google’s car, are electric, switching overall power generation to renewable sources would go hand-in-hand with reducing the emissions that come from cars. Lowering the total number of cars would save energy and materials on production. And self-driving cars are currently programmed to be very deferential to pedestrians and people on bikes, making those modes of transportation safer and likely more popular.

Cars could also drive themselves more efficiently than humans can, again, a potential mixed bag for energy use. Robot cars could coordinate steady speeds, much less stopping, and even aerodynamic caravans, for vastly improved mileage making car transportation cheaper and more efficient per mile traveled. Yet cheaper car rides likely mean more car rides, and more miles traveled by car, potentially canceling out any efficiency benefits or resulting in more energy used than would have been the case otherwise. Add that to the fact that regular car use could be opened up to people who can’t take solo car trips right now like children, elderly or disabled people, and people who don’t know how to drive.

One thing that could hold back self-driving cars’ public transport-killing potential could be the inefficiency of driving people out into the middle of nowhere, Tim De Chant, senior digital editor at NOVA pointed out. “Maybe it’d be like rental cars, where they encourage you to return it to the same place,” he told ThinkProgress. Perhaps companies would see such a cost in doing one-way trips to far-flung suburbs that rates would be prohibitively high to make such a trip. And that would be especially likely if transportation infrastructure funding was dedicated less to building and doing upkeep on the roads that would make those trips possible.

But back to the low speed limit and maximum range of the Google car. Could those features be a clue to maximizing the climate benefits and minimizing negative impacts on public transportation? The 25 mph speed limit is likely a cautious move by Google to keep the car non-threatening and avoid the negative fallout of a well-publicized crash. But if it was sustained in future models, it could effectively shrink the radius of likely car commutes, emphasizing that these vehicles are for short-range trips in a city.

CREDIT: Auntie P/Flickr
CREDIT: Auntie P/Flickr

Even if driverless cars become popular as expected, they will likely share the roads with human drivers for quite some time. A 20 mph speed limit in cities like London and Tokyo has been shown to have cut fatal crashes in residential areas in half. Many other cities in the U.K. and Europe have lowered their speed limits to 20 (or around there), and New York appears to be considering the same.

In the short term, these efforts could save driver and pedestrian lives. And in the long term they could keep driverless cars from totally reversing urban development trends towards public transportation, density, and sustainable cities.