Imagine a commute where, instead of steering yourself through traffic, you can sip your coffee, get some work done or even nap while your self-driving vehicle makes your commute for you. Or perhaps your whole family could pile into a hotel-like car, sleeping through the night while your car takes you home for the holidays.
It sounds futuristic, but experts at the University of Virginia are already thinking about the implications as companies like Google, Amazon, Uber and Tesla design and test their first self-driving cars. Google’s autonomous vehicles have hit the streets in California, and the startup NuTonomy is beginning to test a U.S. fleet in Boston after successful tests in Singapore. In October, Uber put the first autonomous truck on the nation’s highways, transferring 50,000 cans of Budweiser from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs, 120 miles away.
Urbanization vs. ‘Hyper-Sprawl’
More self-driving cars could reduce the amount of vehicle emissions.
His colleague in the School of Engineering, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Donna Chen, found that, compared to current transportation modes, a fleet of self-driving vehicles could offer price-competitive transportation making around 22 trips per day, roughly four to seven times the rate of individually owned, driver-operated vehicles. If a ride-sharing program were instituted, she said, that rate could double.
“Self-driving vehicles could be a perfect option for overcoming barriers currently limiting car-sharing and green vehicle adoption,” Chen said.
Chen also said that the proliferation of self-driving cars could change the housing landscape by reducing the need to live so close to major transit hubs and thus reducing price hikes in those areas.
“It could challenge ideas of gentrification and dilute land value so that it is not quite as extreme,” she said.
More self-driving cars could reduce the cost of living in or near cities and transit hubs.
In his second scenario, Mondschein points out that self-driving cars could exacerbate suburban sprawl, because people could be more productive while commuting and more willing to undertake longer commutes and move further from their jobs. Cars could function as extended living spaces, where people spend more and more of their time.
More self-driving cars could push more people to the suburbs and exacerbate sprawl.
“Already, we are seeing both of these trends develop, as our cities are getting denser and using a mix of walking, biking and transit, while people are also moving further away from their jobs in search of affordable places to live,” Mondschein said. “We will probably confront an even more bifurcated way of thinking about our cities and how we get around.”
New Choices in Urban Design
The choice between those two futures could be up to planners and public officials in individual cities, Mondschein said.
He points to London as one example. There, city officials chose to use revenue from a congestion charge to narrow central London’s roadways, leaving less room for cars and more for cyclists and pedestrians.
“Some drivers complained, but it did create a much higher level of service for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders,” Mondschein said.
Because self-driving cars are expected to be more accurate than human drivers, widespread adoption could lead to more highway capacity, narrower lanes and more space.
I think there is a lot of potential to make gains in efficiencies.”
“We will need to decide if we want to use the surplus road width to pack more cars in or to widen sidewalks and bike lanes. Every city is empowered to make those choices,” Mondschein said. “I think there is a lot of potential to make gains in efficiencies.”
Certain infrastructure changes will also depend on exactly how the technology develops. Some companies, like Google, are developing autonomous vehicles that drive independently of any network, relying on very detailed mapping programs. Others are developing connected vehicles, which rely on external infrastructure – such as sensors and alert systems – to provide information about speed, terrain and obstacles.
“Right now, there is a lot of research surrounding both models,” Mondschein said. “There are important differences between the two that will affect how we build our cities.”
Social and Ethical Dilemmas
Of course, such decisions carry significant social and ethical consequences. Mondschein has already given a presentation to the U.S. Marines discussing the potential security implications of self-driving cars.
“They had a lot of specific concerns about, for example, what happens when no one grows up knowing how to drive,” he said. “What if the self-driving systems fail or are shut down? How could we be more resilient?”
For citizens, self-driving cars could significantly improve the lives of those currently facing limited mobility, such as senior citizens.
More self-driving cars means senior citizens could get around more autonomously.
On the other hand, Mondschein pointed out that there are significant ethical concerns about, for example, having self-driving cars drop children off at school.
More self-driving cars could raise ethical concerns.
“Ultimately, we will have to look at this from a social point of view,” he said. “Discussions on the ethics of driverless cars have already begun.”
“I am not skeptical that this will eventually happen, because it does seem that many things are lining up to facilitate this future,” Mondschein said. “But, there is a lot to go through first. There are a lot of systems that have to be developed in order for this driverless future to occur.”