Self Driving Cars and the New City

 

Smart cities are coming, that much is certain, and their prominence and sophistication is fast on the rise. My own passions lie in bringing smart city technology to our very own Lagos with Eko Atlantic. Every smart city is different, a living, growing thing that responds to the needs of its citizens, which makes this dynamic group of technologies difficult to predict and anticipate.

 

There are some trends, however, that seem poised to transform the very nature of what we consider a “city” to be. You’ve probably guessed it: One of these cornerstones of our (very near) future is the self driving car.

 

Although critics exist, and certainly there are several kinks in the technology that must be ironed out, the self driving car is all but an inevitability. Most of the major players (Google, Tesla, and even many traditional car companies) are promising to have commercially available autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020, and experts predict that by 2040-2045 self-driving cars will replace most human drivers as commonplace transportation.

 

It’s easy to see how self driving cars will redefine the way we travel, revolutionize safety on the road, and possibly spell disaster for the (human-driven) taxi industry. But the cars of the future will also have a profound effect on the cities we call home.   

 

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a city planner. Even the most basic concept of the modern city is organized around the car. Everything must be accessible by vehicle, sectioning the city into blocks defined by bustling roads and intersections. It is your constant challenge to lay out the vehicular veins of the city to fight near-constant congestion and ever-present danger to pedestrians. All of this is ostensibly in service of a higher quality of life for citizens. The more you think about the layout of our cities, however, the more it becomes clear that cities are planned around cars, not people.

 

Self driving cars change all that, and allow for a new, people-centered city design. Here’s how:

 

First, self driving cars will have immediately alleviate traffic, because they are able to drive more quickly and more efficiently than human drivers are. They also have the curious effect of reducing their own demand; Without the need for human control, self driving cars lend themselves perfectly to ridesharing, meaning that individual people will find less and less need to investment tens of thousands of dollars in a personal vehicle. Instead, they’ll share an ever-available fleet of autonomous taxis with their neighbors. That means fewer, more efficient cars on the streets.

 

According to Uber, almost 75 percent of the costs of any taxi service is the driver’s salary. With that cost eliminated, the price is radically reduced. If we assume that our vehicles will also be electric, the price to ride shrinks down to mere cents per kilometer. This means a new age of accessible transportation for all, no matter their economic status. Because of it’s expense, so much of technology has the unfortunate effect of further distinguishing the haves from the have-nots. Instead, self driving cars will be a great equalizer.

 

With fewer and fewer cars on the road and even fewer human drivers, traffic lights themselves will eventually become a thing of the past. After all, autonomous vehicles that are communicating amongst themselves have no need for this clunky policing. Check out this fascinating visualization of the traffic flow of the future.

 

As cars increasingly manage themselves, we can refocus on making cities a great place for their human inhabitants to live. When cars can park themselves, or send themselves home to wait for you, or simply go on to collect the next taxi customer, there will be hardly any need for the massive concrete fields we now rely on for city parking. And that’s no small change — parking space currently makes up about a third of all city area!

 

Instead, this inert concrete can be transformed into useful public space, whether it is lush, beautiful parks, condominiums and apartments in central locations, or prime commercial real estate to provide services and stimulate the economy.

 

When curb space no longer needs to be reserved for parking, this too can be returned to the people as wider sidewalks, bike lanes, green spaces, or public art installations.

 

In fact, sidewalks themselves will become less and less necessary, as autonomous cars aren’t prone to the human mistake of hitting pedestrians. It may sound far fetched, a kind of harmonious technological utopia, but this video presents a concept where sidewalks are completely removed and pedestrians confidently share the roads with cars.

 

Whether or not we keep our sidewalks, it is clear that we are more than ready to do away with rush hour traffic, smog, and dangerous collisions in favor of a new kind of people-centered, smart car city.