Go out to your street and take a photo of it, because in five years — certainly 10 years — it will look very different. Just as smartphones have disrupted entire industries — newspapers, printed maps, film photography — driverless cars soon will transform the automotive industry and with it, how we will get around and what we will see out our windows.
Far more than our driving habits will be altered by the new vehicles: Highways will change, along with parking lots, residential streets and urban densities.
This became clear to everyone who attended a talk this spring hosted by the Science Museum of Minnesota and Urban Land Institute Minnesota given by John Eddy, a leader of the infrastructure practice at ARUP, the world’s leading engineering firm. Driverless cars may seem utopian, something far off and not for the faint of heart. But Eddy showed how fast this technology has evolved, available to all in the next three to five years, and how safe it has become: After millions of miles of testing, the only driverless-car accidents have occurred when vehicles driven by humans have run into them.
Many of the audiences’ questions for Eddy focused on the transition to a driverless world and on the conflicts that could occur between cars with drivers and those without. His answers came as a surprise: There won’t be much of a transition.
“The first driverless cars will be part of fleets providing mobility services — sort of a cross between car sharing and a taxi service,” he said. And by “lowering the total cost of driving by 40 to 70 percent over the cost of traditional car ownership,” he added, along with rising insurance rates for those who want to keep driving and cause most of the accidents, driverless technology will see rapid and widespread adaptation.
This happened to the automotive industry once before. A century ago, automobiles went from being a novelty to a necessity in little more than a decade, rapidly replacing horse-drawn transportation for the same reasons that driverless electric cars will replace what we have now: greater safety, less pollution and lower cost.
Skeptical? “Every major car manufacturer, many of their suppliers and some of the biggest tech companies,” said Eddy, “are developing fully automated vehicles to operate alongside our current fleet of manually operated vehicles.”
The car industry is quickly becoming a mobility industry, selling services as much as vehicles.
As happened when cars arrived a hundred years ago, driverless cars will transform many aspects of our lives.
Consider parking. When car-sharing fleets have driverless cars, we will be able to buy a mobility service for about a quarter of the cost of owning and driving our own cars. And with that will go the need for parking. We will call up a car that will take us where we want to go, dropping us at our destination and then moving on to its next call, like some automated chauffeur service, as Eddy called it. This will reduce the number of vehicles by at least a factor of four, he estimates, and, except perhaps in the middle of the night, eliminate parked cars. “Imagine our cities without parking lots or houses without the need for garages and driveways,” said Eddy. Parking ramps may go the way of horse stables.
Streets will also change. Unlike our current road system, designed to reduce the accidents that come from human error, driverless streets will need only two lanes each way, Eddy said, a “through lane and a drop-off lane,” each narrower than what we have now. The added space in the public right of way can then go for bike lanes, wider sidewalks and the planting strips that make walking safer and more pleasurable, and keep stormwater cleaner and more on-site.
Driverless cars may also encourage greater density as mobility services charge by the distance vehicles travel and as response times improve accordingly. All of which will come as good news to governments struggling to maintain and repair the overextended infrastructure we have in place because of the automobile.
As with any technological disruption, there will be winners and losers. The winners include the 25 percent of the population, according to Eddy, who cannot drive: the elderly, disabled and youth; the poor, who will have access to vehicles at a fraction of the cost; and commuters, who waste the equivalent of one week a year stuck in traffic. Municipal budgets, public health, urban life and the natural environment will also benefit enormously from this change, as happened a century ago when cars replaced horses.
The losers? Those in the automotive industry who ignore the disruption headed its way; those living in remote locations who may have to pay higher rates to still drive a car, and those who deny that the American love of the automobile will ever end, something people said 100 years ago about their horses. As the Beatles put it: Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.
Thomas Fisher, the outgoing dean of the College of Design, will be the new director of the Metropolitan Design Center, whose work focuses on the 21st-century city.