Once considered science-fiction, driverless cars are now motoring toward reality. Beginning with automatic safety features such as collision-avoidance braking and blind-spot alerts to robotic conveniences that include parallel parking assistance, technology is rapidly replacing hands-on functionality. The fact that BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Google, and General Motors are all investing in self-driving technologies and prototypes, that are both effective and affordable, indicates that the question of autonomous vehicles is less “if” as much as it is “when.”
A recent New York Times article interviewed leading engineers who are evaluating and predicting traffic patterns for autonomous vehicles. In the not-so-distant future, a digital network between self-driving cars and programmable routes could allow autonomous vehicles to communicate with their intended destinations from miles away. In addition, traffic lighting and controls would guide vehicles with minimal stoppage. The results, according to engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Texas at Austin, reach beyond reduced transit time for commuters and improve overall road safety. Consider that 40% of all auto accidents in the US occur at intersections and the National Highway Traffic Safety estimates that more than 90% of crashes involve human error – leading many experts to affirm that roadway safety would improve substantially.
Along with changes to the driver/passenger experience, the world of design, development, and urban planning will feel some impact. Prime real estate will be unlocked and repurposed into livable spaces. Fewer garages, parking lots, gas stations, and dealerships mean more land for parks and public realm, or additional entertainment, retail, restaurants, and other street-level engagement. Likewise, the visual clutter of street signs and wayfinding can be reduced, creating more opportunities for culture and community connection. Across the board, these changes allow design to focus on people first and vehicles second, a giant leap forward for land planning.
Currently, cost is a major barrier to widespread proliferation of self-driving automobiles. Previous evolutions in technology have proven the same, with early adopters paying the hefty price of research and development in exchange for being among the first to participate in an innovative experience. However, as technology becomes more available, the demand for design that recognizes and responds to these changes will grow.
As with any new technology, the first-generation of autonomous vehicles comes with as many questions as answers. What happens in the case of an electrical or technology blackout? What if the GPS setting is wrong? How do we prevent people from hacking traffic and safety systems? Why not just invest in expanding mass transit? These concerns must be addressed before autonomous vehicles become commonplace. But as that happens, the demand for responsive planning and design that considers autonomous vehicles will, in part, be driven by the driverless.