Who’s driving this thing?

Google driverless car
Home, R2D2, and once around the park

In my last post, I discussed the trouble with government incentives that focus on technologies. Alternative vehicle fuels such as compressed natural gas and electricity are the current favourite technologies for a post-carbon transportation era, but there’s another game in town that could prove far more disruptive: driverless cars.

When considering driverless cars, the first thing to do is to recognize that they promise to bring about a complete break from the current norm of private car ownership. The real potential of driverless cars lies not in a set of features available to individual car buyers – cruise control on steroids, say – but in the transformation of transportation from product to service. The driver (sorry, pun) for this transformation is economics.

The average car spends 95% of its time parked, according to Paul Barter of Reinventing Parking. If such a car were fully utilized, it could replace somewhere between two and 20 conventional cars. A shared driverless car service could offer mobility for at least 50% – and possibly as low as 5% – of the cost of personal car ownership.

The savings don’t end there. The end of car ownership also means the end of the line for most parking facilities, and the transformation of the few that endure. For single-family homes, the need for a garage goes away, as does the need for a driveway. For multi-unit residences, parkade structures become redundant and the space becomes liberated for more valuable uses. The same goes for workplaces, retail establishments, and so on. For the minimal periods of time when automated vehicles are not required, parking becomes a first-in-first-out model, situated on the cheapest real estate available – brownfield sites, for example – with cheek-by-jowl spacing since there’s no longer any requirement for people to get in and out. This unlocks a huge amount of high-value real estate currently relegated to low-value use.

There are infrastructure savings as well. Municipalities – at least those in Canada – struggle with a significant gap between the need to maintain infrastructure, and the funds available to meet that need. Self-driving cars, networked together to allow instant sharing of information regarding road conditions, would be able to operate safely with bumper-to-bumper spacing, even at highway speeds. This would dramatically increase the capacity of existing roadways, rendering a whole lot of asphalt redundant. The amount of pavement to be maintained would plummet. (On the flip side, some significant sources of municipal revenue – parking fees, fines for various violations related to motor vehicle operation – would also disappear.)

This same ability to increase awareness of the vehicle’s surroundings by networking with other vehicles, or with sensing technology embedded in the road surface or streetlight poles, would allow much more fluid flow of traffic. It would largely eliminate the start-stop dynamic that is so frustrating to drivers, especially when traffic lights on major arterial routes are poorly sequenced. This simulation video by CityLab illustrates how dramatically different a driverless intersection would perform. The result would be faster trips and better fuel efficiency. The opportunity for platooning mentioned in the previous paragraph (and described in more detail here) offers similar fuel efficiency improvement.

Mobility, real estate, and infrastructure savings are all well and good, but a there’s another saving – lives. Car accidents cause over 2,000 deaths and 10,000 serious injuries per year in this country, according to Transport Canada. The major safety topics in this report are dominated by the human factor, also known as the four D’s – drinking, drugs, drowsiness, and distraction – as described by eTrans Systems CEO John Estrada in a recent podcast. The Transport Canada report doesn’t go so far as to connect the causes with the casualty stats, but it’s pretty clear that removing the human from the driving equation would drive down the human cost of driving. This cost includes the hard economic cost of lost productive years from premature death or disablement, the hard cost to the health care system to treat injuries, the hard cost of damage to vehicle and property, and the soft but very real cost of the pain and suffering of survivors. This was the very factor motivating Google’s Sebastian Thrun to search for a better way to get around.

The economic force behind this innovation is massive and inescapable – a tsunami, in fact. There will be speed bumps along the road to widespread penetration of this technology, but the question is not if, but when.

So what does this mean for energy policy, and for municipal planning in general? With such a revolution around the corner, how can society prepare? How do we avoid making major investments that will be rendered redundant long before they live out what was expected to be their useful lives?

Take parking, for example. The City of Guelph is grappling with what to do about this issue in the downtown core. Finding a spot on a busy shopping day is a major pain – nothing compared to what Torontonians face, but a nightmare by Guelph standards. When customers can’t find a place to park while they shop, they won’t shop. They will go to malls and big-box retailers on the city periphery where parking is plentiful, and downtown businesses will suffer.

The obvious solution is to dedicate more space to parking. Surface parking is one way. Multilevel parkades make better use of scarce real estate, but at a substantial cost. Finding a way to fund this investment is a challenge.

If mass adoption of the driverless car is on the horizon, the logic for investments like this is no longer clear. The problem is pressing and must be solved in the short term, but any solution must be designed with an eye to how it might be re-purposed should technology send it the way of the electric typewriter.

That is no easy task, but inaction is not an option. Forward-looking design is the only way to avoid kicking ourselves when a significant societal transformation arrives.

There is a precedent. When Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct entered service in 1918, designer R.C. Harris had ensured it would be ready to accommodate two-way subway train traffic. The Bloor-Danforth subway began using it a full 48 years later.

With a mobility revolution on the horizon, today’s public infrastructure investments will need that same sort of vision.