How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change the Built Environment

Driverless vehicle highway / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless vehicle highway diet / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Imagine a future with autonomous vehicles, ordered through a subscription service, shuttling passengers safely to any destination at up to 130 miles per hour. Now think about what this means for our streets and highways, parking infrastructure, public spaces, and even the organization of our communities. At SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, president of landscape and urban design firm SWA Group, took us through a wild thought experiment, showing us what a driverless future could look like. He believes the majority of travel will be autonomous by 2050, with huge implications for our built environment.

According to Baumgardner, there are 1.2 billion cars in the world today, and that number is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030 as automobile ownership surges in China and India. All of these drivers spend about 30 percent of their time looking for parking, which means about 1 billion miles annually. The U.S. alone has a billion parking spaces, and, together, they take up an area the size of Puerto Rico. As the number of cars grows, so has the number of fatal accidents. This year, 1.24 million people lost their lives in crashes, and the fatalities in places like the Middle East, where they drive really fast, are growing quickly. Autonomous vehicles could not only dramatically reduce the number of cars and, therefore, parking spaces but also make automotive travel much safer.

Baumgardner started thinking about what a future with autonomous vehicles would look like when SWA Group began working with Texan officials on ways to accommodate a bulked-up Interstate 45, which will expand to take up a whopping 26 lanes by 2050. Texas’ department of transportation needs to be able to move a million cars through every day.

He thinks the majority of travel will be autonomous in coming decades, potentially making Houston’s extra infrastructure unnecessary. Some 85 million driverless cars are expected to be sold by 2035. One of Tesla’s cars is already nearly autonomous. “It’s about when this will happen, not if.”

The move to fully autonomous vehicles will happen in steps, much like full adoption of the elevator took many years. “The elevator was viewed as dangerous at first, but then they put in a call box, alarm, and safety switch” and people’s fears were eased. In the same way, driverless cars could first include steering wheels and other controls and then slowly phase those out.

We heard a positive vision of robotic cars. People will no longer own cars but simply subscribe to car subscription services. There could be different rates for single vehicles or vans, high-end vehicles or modest ones. Users could also modify their subscription based on use — someone could hire a convertible for a ride to the beach or a truck when moving.

Driverless cars will be more fuel efficient, as they won’t need to park — they’ll simply drop you off and then pick up another customer or return to some charging station.

Autonomous vehicles will sense and even communicate with each other and therefore perhaps need their own lanes separate from human-driven cars, which will be viewed as more dangerous. They will then be able to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour (210 kilometers per hour) because congestion can be managed and accidents automatically avoided. Cars will also be able to share neighborhood streets with pedestrians and bicyclists better because they will sense any movement and slow down.

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

In cities, autonomous vehicles could result in the rise of multiple downtowns, a series of walkable hubs. “Cars will drive you from place to place where you can then walk around.” Robotic cars could even integrate with services like Foursquare, which map where your friends are, to automatically take you places.

Due to the reduced number of cars, there will be many opportunities to transform the built environment. “What happens to the land freed up? 22-lane highways can be reduced to 8.” All those extra lanes on the sides of now-too-wide highways could be transformed into green corridors, providing habitat for pollinators like butterflies and birds. In places, “it could be rough, untended nature” or designed “sponge-like spaces” that absorb water.

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking structures could become flexible spaces for apartments or even artists’ studios.

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

And parking lots could become public spaces like parks or markets.

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Baumgardner wondered what driverless cars mean for the suburbs. “Will we see the rise of walkable sprawl?” As autonomous vehicles minimize the need for cars, suburban communities will now be even more expansive on foot and need to reinvest in building sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and trail systems. As for the typical suburban forms, “cul-de-sacs can become the space for temporary pools or community centers.” And garages, now without cars, could become the new front porch, opening up to create a more lively streetscape.

One question from the audience: Will autonomous vehicles be affordable? Will we need public autonomous vehicle systems? Baumgardner sees “different systems for different income levels. For lower income users, safety and security will be most important. Entrepreneurs could create shared systems. Or local governments could subsidize use. This will definitely need planning.”

And the transition to driverless cars and trucks will not be without major challenges. Baumgardner sees a new era of messy transportation coming, with a mix of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles duking it out. And he wonders whether the shift to autonomous vehicles can happen everywhere. For example, in India, where cars share road space with elephants, the transition will be much slower.

But in the developed world, there will still be lots of opportunities to integrate autonomous vehicles with other high-speed transportation systems, like the Hyperloop now in early stages of development.

In another talk at the conference, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of JumpStartFund, and now Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, outlined how he and his colleagues are responding to Tesla founder Elon Musk’s call to create a “hyperloop,” a system of “reduced-pressure” tubes that would pull passengers in capsule cars through at speeds up to 750 miles per hour (1,200 kilometers per hour). Ahlborn sees a network of tubes high up on pylons, which will make them earthquake proof. “It will be the safest ride possible. No humans will be involved.” A network of tubes will then connect cities across the U.S. and world. But Ahlborn admitted local access to the Hyperloop stations is a problem that still needs to be worked out. If it’s not convenient to get to the stations, people won’t use it.

hyperloop
Hyperloop / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Like the vision for autonomous vehicles, which first appeared at the Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the one for traveling through vacuum tubes is an old one, too. In 1904, a Swiss company filed a patent for such travel. Now, that dream may soon be realized. Prototypes are being built and tested in the Quay Valley, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 5-mile stretch is expected to open by 2018.

So much faith that our technologies will only improve.

One thought on “How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change the Built Environment

  1. Urban Choreography 10/19/2015 / 1:42 am

    Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    According to William Gibson, “the future is already here – its just not evenly distributed yet” – one of the problems of change, such new driverless cars from cars with all kinds of different drivers; some on cell phones; some on drugs and some just dreaming in the traffic, is that the mix of drivers and driverless cars will not be a smooth transition, it will be filled with social and human problems such as affordability, intractability of people and their resistance to change, lags on legislation, thus the conversion to the machine-like future portrayed in movies such as Minority Report, is probably unlikely, as with most such utopian techno-fixes, and it fails to address the other problems underlying the present eco-crisis, those of equity, conspicuous consumption, extreme fanatical religions etc, etc.. Here in the the global south, it will take some time, some doing, yet it would be great to have fewer highways, machines that respect and avoid cyclists and pedestrians automatically ….unlike present day drivers.

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