Although automotive companies have been researching and developing autonomous vehicles for the past 30 years, it wasn’t until 2010, when Google announced that they too have been developing autonomous vehicle technology, that both the mainstream media and the general public started paying attention to this technology.
The direct benefit of such innovation stands out straight away: increased safety. Sebastian Thrun, who helped build Google’s driverless car technology, highlights how the number one cause of death among young people are driving accidents; and these accidents are mainly due to human error. There is a genuine problem being solved.
I do not want to underestimate the safety benefits of this innovation, but the architect in me has other questions. Can this technology affect architecture? What about urban planning and infrastructure? If so, how?
Dr. Thrun made a very subtle statement in his March 2011 TED talk “Google’s driverless car” that caught my attention:
Do you realise that we could change the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three if we didn’t rely on human precision on staying in the lane, improving body position and therefore drive a little bit closer together, on a little bit narrower lanes, and do away with all traffic jams on highways?
A World with Less Infrastructure and Less Vehicles?
Let’s paint a scenario. Imagine a world were all vehicles are autonomous. Are today’s three lane streets and highways needed or can we do with two lanes, with each half the width? Are complex and expensive intersections needed? Will streets and roads need paint markings? What about signals?
Sure, this sounds like minimalism, but my immediate thought is that this technology will result in a reduction in infrastructure investment. Lets face it, today’s infrastructure is designed around the need for human interaction, and today’s design becomes superfluous in a world where computers drive our vehicles.
This high precision, number crunching, and efficient computer driven world will not only reduce the economic investment in infrastructure, but also reduce the need for the current space that today’s transportation needs requires. Can you imagine how much free physical space this technology will create? Can you imagine the opportunities this creates?
Here is another thought. Assume, for the sake of argument, that today’s cars are only used 1.5 hours a day. This vehicle usage rate means that cars are parked for 93.8% of the time in any given day.
Isn’t this inefficient and costly to the owner? Isn’t the space a parked car occupies costly to a city? Given that autonomous cars can drive themselves, with the right software and algorithms one car may serve the needs of one family when before two cars were needed. I could even go further by saying that maybe one self-driving car can serve the transportation needs of two or three families. But this is a different discussion. My point here is that this self-driving cars can potentially increase car utilisation, and lower car density in streets, neighbourhoods and cities.
Although the above points are hypothetical scenarios, the current pace of technological advances makes this theories not too far fetched. The reduction of transpiration infrastructure and the increase in car utilisation will be a catalyst that can reshape urban landscape for good, and will create unimaginably opportunities.
Urban Planning needs to Start Today
Like any other technological change, there are threats and opportunities. Architects, urban planners, all the way to local authorities need to be aware of what’s coming around the corner.
More highways and crossovers are not the solution to today’s transportation needs, if anything these types of infrastructure exacerbate the number of traffic jams, accidents, pollution, etc.
We might not be far away from seeing today’s roads dramatically increasing their capacity, while too increasing safety and speed.
All stakeholders need to start planning for change today. Today’s multi-billion infrastructure projects are planned with traditional vehicles in mind. Worst of all, these are long-term projects, planning 50 or 70 years ahead. Is this forward thinking? Are city and country leaders aware of this technological tsunami?
I personally believe we are past the concept phase, and we need to start planning for this today. The potential ideas and changes this technology brings are endless.
Today’s streets with double parked cars could be turned into wider sidewalks or segregated bicycle lanes. This “simple” change can truly democratise transportation infrastructure, as less car-related infrastructure is required, more pedestrian- and cycling-related infrastructure can be made available to the public.
Right now we can only see the tip of the iceberg. All parties, public and private, need to steer the ship in the right direction. If we work towards this quasi utopian scenario, this will not only become a reality, but will reshape the urban landscape, and democratise infrastructure.