How will autonomous vehicles change American cities?

 —  Article by William Polk
autonomous vehicles
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Once viewed as something out of a science fiction movie, autonomous vehicles are now seen as inevitable – and North American cities are embracing the new technology.

As part of a pilot program, Uber Technologies has been offering Pittsburgh residents rides in autonomous cars. In Ohio, the city of Columbus was awarded $50 million in smart city grants over the summer to develop intelligent transportation systems including driverless vehicles.

And California – which has been leading the way in autonomous vehicle technology – recently revised draft regulations to pave the way for autonomous vehicles on its roads.

Even if American drivers remain unsure about the latest advances – only 16 percent want to ride in a self-driving vehicle according to a University of Michigan study – car manufacturers are fully on board.

Ford is targeting fully autonomous vehicles by 2021. Other auto makers such as BMW AG and Volvo Car Corp say they will produce driverless vehicles by 2021 or sooner.

Add to the mix that U.S. technology industry veterans recently proposed a ban on human drivers on a 150-mile (241-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 5 from Seattle to Vancouver, and today’s drivers look set to become tomorrow’s passengers.

Indeed, within five years, human driving could no longer be allowed in congested city centers like London, on college campuses and at airports, Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive transportation at consultant Ernst & Young tells Bloomberg.

Reshaping daily life

The implications for people, infrastructure and cities across America will be enormous, Peter Miscovich, Managing Director of Strategy and Innovation at JLL believes. “Autonomous vehicles have great potential,” he says. “Passengers could use them as potential workspaces, making daily commutes more tolerable and productive for work activities.”

In fact, a McKinsey report estimates that autonomous vehicles could enable people to claim back 50 minutes per day – presenting opportunities not just for flexible working but also for a greater work-life balance.

Meanwhile, people currently facing mobility issues such as the elderly and people with disabilities could enjoy greater independence and easier access to leisure and social facilities, opening up real estate beyond locations with public transport links.

City centers, where land is often scarce and comes at a premium, could particularly stand to benefit, Miscovich suggests. “Central business districts would require less parking space. Congestion could be eased within many city centers and the space could be re-purposed for the public good, improving livability for many of our cities,” he adds.

“Expansive parking garages could become fewer in number, enabling the greater development of more useful public or private space where today parking is dominant. Commercial real estate would become more valuable as property owners could collect rents on the space that typically would have been used for parking.”

Such moves could help American cities to become much more livable and much less automobile centric – an area where many cities and suburbs currently struggle. The space for cars on city streets could become narrower, allowing for wider sidewalks and more pedestrian “walkable” space.

Existing buildings, however, could require some big changes. “Being able to easily modify a structure to accommodate electric autonomous vehicles will be critical,” says Jim Butcher, Founder and Managing Partner of Entegra Partners.

“In new property developments, architects and planners will need to make sure they account for electric vehicle charging stations and strong network access to put their properties in a position to succeed.”

Addressing the challenges

Companies such as Google and Tesla may be testing on roads, but self-driving cars are far from a proven entity. At present they include caveats that disqualify their cars from being fully autonomous. Some vehicles will have a built-in autonomous-driving speed limit or will only be driverless in a small, defined geographic area.

Butcher questions how autonomous vehicles will interact with human-driven vehicles. “The computer systems and interface to manage all these vehicles is years away from sorting out all the details,” he says. “The systems will need to get better, and roads themselves will require networking capabilities back to the car.”

There are significant insurance issues to iron out with autonomous vehicle driving too. For example, if an autonomous vehicle gets in an accident, who is liable? That question is far from being answered.

“If we only had autonomous vehicles universally, driving in an autonomous vehicle world would be safer for everyone concerned,” Miscovich adds. “We’d have fully automated infrastructure grids which would be autonomously controlled and managed by advanced Artificial Intelligence and smart Internet of Things (IoT) sensory networks.”

He nevertheless expects trials to develop in other cities with good infrastructure grids. “In California, for example, the freeways and highways are well designed, managed and organized,” Miscovich says. “It would be a bit more complicated to successfully support and effectively manage an autonomous vehicle network in certain older U.S. cities given aging infrastructure and systems.”

The technology behind self-driving vehicles may be advancing rapidly, but there’s still work to do to convince those who are skeptical of a machine being behind the wheel.

“Many humans are still quite reluctant to be driven by an autonomous vehicle,” Miscovich concludes. “And it’s critical we work out the insurance issues with autonomous vehicle driving. The transition to fully autonomous vehicles will most likely take more time to fully implement than we can anticipate today.”

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