Road diets and car clouds: Shaping the driverless city

Like the space race of the 1960s, the competitive sprint to develop a driverless car is well underway. As start-ups, major companies, and the automotive industry hurry toward production, public conversation has largely focused on the technological innovations that allow for an autonomous vehicle.

With advances in assembly, safety trials, and implementation, designers of the built environment must also explore how this new technology will affect the structure of our cities and the routine of our daily lives.

Fundamental shifts

To an astounding degree, the technology needed for driverless cars is already being developed. Google is currently engineering a 100-vehicle fleet without steering wheels, gas pedals, gear shifts, or brakes. This summer, Bay Area start-up Cruise offered 50 preorders for kits that provide newer Audi models with an autopilot mode for highways. Both use a combination of sensors and mounted radar and camera technology to measure distance and respond to the environment. Although the vehicles and systems are taking different forms, most major automobile manufacturers are developing an autonomous driving system.

Developers of driverless technology are working with lawmakers and legislators to ensure that policy keeps pace with technology and to allow efficient testing, operation, and improvement. Public officials are taking these advances seriously, redefining regulation to reflect new forms of mobility and maintain safety standards. California, Florida, and Nevada now have laws that permit autonomous vehicles.

Just as the technology for autonomous vehicles necessitates policy changes, driverless cars will have unavoidable implications for the built environment and for the people navigating through it.

Instead of freeway interchanges vertically stacked with overpasses, clouds of driverless vehicles could travel through intersections synchronously

The most significant changes in the movement of people and goods through our cities will come from the convergence of this technology with other emerging trends: car sharing, big data, electric and other forms of propulsion technology, and increasing intermodal connectivity among transit forms.

Together these phenomena will fundamentally alter the way urban information is collected and communicated. From traffic density to the precise location of newly formed potholes, the maps of our cities will be rich with ever-evolving data.

Questions remain as to how the roadways and sidewalks will change to accommodate a driverless world

Foreseeable changes

Driverless technology will affect the way we move objects as well as people, changing the provision of services such as goods delivery, street cleaning, and waste management. Our vehicles — which may be cars, trucks, buses, or specialized forms that we have yet to imagine — will become increasingly safe, light, and efficient.

Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities will become more mobile

Certain changes to the built environment are immediately inevitable, and others will be constrained as long as humans, with limited vision and reaction times, are still driving on our roads. For as long as autonomous and traditional drivers share the road, we will still need regulatory and safety measures such as traffic lights, full-stop intersections, and curbs on urban streets. But an environment where all vehicles are autonomous — whether through dedicated lanes, full roads, or zones of a city — could look very different.

Driverless cars can drive closer together and travel faster more safely, allowing lanes to narrow

In urban areas, driverless taxis will dramatically reduce the demand for city-center parking but will also increase the need for passenger drop-off and pick-up zones outside of buildings. Driverless buses, freight, and service vehicles may further contribute to the need for road lanes to be dedicated to specific speeds or purposes.

One important question — for bicycle safety and beyond — is how, technologically, the vehicles will interact with the environment

Decreased noise and emissions may allow buildings to open up more to the surrounding environment. And when individual deliveries for recipients across the city are bundled and optimized in a constant flow of on-demand movement, buildings may no longer have discrete pedestrian entries and freight loading zones, but a different relationship with the street altogether.

Garages could become fewer and driveways narrower

Suburban areas will undergo different changes as a result of driverless vehicles. With fewer garages and driveways, we can imagine new uses of that space and rethink the way our homes interface with the surrounding community. Questions surrounding office park design are equally open-ended — with a larger proportion of real estate traditionally devoted to parking, the corporate campus of the future could become an open green space or more urbanized.

One worry is whether the ability to sleep, bathe, or eat during commutes will encourage sprawl

Possible futures

Thoughtful observers have started to identify questions of critical importance for the future of the built environment. With driverless cars dropping off passengers and repositioning for their next trip, we expect overall vehicle miles to increase, but will the convenience, access, and efficiency of autonomous vehicles increase the overall passenger miles traveled? Will it increase sprawl? Will related measures such as dynamic pricing based on time of day, location, or vehicle type actually increase the inequality in mobility? Engineers and planners at Arup are collaborating with technology developers, policymakers, and academics to explore these questions, visualizing and shaping the future of the driverless world.

This article has been edited since its original publication.

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