Commentary

How driverless cars are set to reinvent and humanise our streets

How driverless cars are set to reinvent and humanise our streets
A prototype of Google’s self-driving vehicle. The idea is that if driverless cars become more widely used than private cars, they could help reduce congestion, eliminate the need for parking spaces and improve road safety. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:00 AM, December 15, 2016
Updated: 7:28 AM, December 15, 2016

When the muddy streets of San Francisco were laid out during the heady days of the gold rush, riding a horse was the fastest way to get around. Today, a new type of vehicle can be seen cruising the city: The driverless car.

With their spinning radar sensors and bulky camera arrays, these vehicles have the awkward look of a technology that is not quite mature. Yet just as the automobile gave rise to paved streets and suburban sprawl, the driverless car is set to radically reshape the cities we live in.

“There are huge changes that are coming,” said Mr Dan Doctoroff, former deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding in New York. “We are in the middle of a historic moment.” Today, Mr Doctoroff leads Sidewalk Labs, a one-year-old offshoot of Google that works to bring new technologies to cities.

Three or four decades from now, our streets will bear little resemblance to the roads we know today — and more to the shared thoroughfares of the past, said Mr Doctoroff. “The relationship between street and sidewalk perhaps goes back to something similar to a picture you would have seen from 1900,” he said.

The idea is that if driverless cars become more widely used than private cars, they could help reduce congestion, eliminate the need for parking spaces and improve road safety.

This halcyon vision is shared by many in Silicon Valley and gaining a lot of momentum thanks to the rise of Uber and Lyft, the Valley’s duelling ride-hailing companies. Now that California’s tech companies have produced the smartphone, developed artificial intelligence and sent rockets to space, disrupting the city is the next frontier.

Yet disrupting the city has turned out to be a very challenging task, especially because most cities were built long ago. For many of Silicon Valley’s dreamers, this older infrastructure is blocking the way of progress. “We are looking at the decaying infrastructure of the last century and beyond,” said Mr Shervin Pishevar, an early investor in Uber and a co-founder of Hyperloop One, which aims to create 1,127kmh tubes that will move people faster than aircraft. “Cities are effectively taken hostage by the automobile designs of the 20th century.”

His solution is to design and build new cities, in conjunction with Hyperloop networks, which will feature lush, green urban centres and underground tunnels for transportation. He refers to this as “re-terraforming the earth”.

“This existing infrastructure is not what we are going to be living in the future,” he said. “Like pyramids that are decaying, those parts of cities are going to be just remnants of what is in the past.”

While Mr Pishevar’s vision is extreme, even by Silicon Valley standards, a growing number of tech companies are already making more immediate, if prosaic, changes to our cities. One of the most visible is the coming shift to driverless cars — and if the technologists are right, this could happen sooner than we think.

“Private car ownership will all but end in major US cities,” said Mr John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft. He predicts that within five years, most of Lyft’s rides will take place in autonomous vehicles. This will make the service cheaper, because driverless cars are less expensive than having a human driver. These economics will accelerate a transition that is already under way, as urbanites opt to use Uber and Lyft rather than buy their own vehicles.

“The cost of car ownership is already higher than Lyft Line (its carpool service) in some major US cities,” said Mr Zimmer, citing San Francisco and New York.

Others agree. Private car ownership could peak as soon as 2020, according to a recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. “As car ownership drops, you can start to think about a total redesign of cities around people, which is as it should be, and not around cars, which is how it is right now,” said Mr Jon Walker, author of the study.

Meanwhile, Uber is already thinking beyond the driverless car to the flying car. In a recent concept paper, it envisaged small vehicles that would move like helicopters but with six small rotors instead of one large rotor, making them quieter. Each rotor would be powered by electric batteries, in theory, though Uber admits existing battery technology is not yet up to the task.

Whether people are transported in flying vehicles or driverless cars, one immediate impact would be less need for parking. By some counts, the total number of parking spaces in the United States covers an area the size of Puerto Rico. Designers and city planners are already salivating over what they could do with this reclaimed space. “Cities are about to receive a public space dividend,” says Mr Blaine Merker, an architect at Gehl, an urban design group.

Many real estate developers are starting to plan for this shift too. “We have to recognise that a building is going to have a longer life than the need for parking,” said Mr Jonathan Rose, a developer and author of The Well-Tempered City (2016). “From a real estate developer’s point of view, parking is a huge expense. It is a non-income-producing one, so we’d love to get rid of it.” In San Francisco, one new housing development has already opted to subsidise Uber rides for its residents so that it can build less parking.

While most cities still insist that parking must be included in new buildings, developers and architects are starting to look for ways to make parking areas adaptable for multiple uses, such as office space.

Mr Carlo Ratti, an architect and instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that design tweaks can make parking areas more flexible. “It doesn’t cost any more, but it will be future-proof,” he added.

As driverless cars become commonplace, not all the changes will be positive. One of the biggest concerns is whether this new form of transport will increase urban sprawl. As driverless cars make commuting cheaper and more comfortable — allowing passengers to work or sleep while they ride — it will make it that much easier for office workers to live in far-flung suburbs.

Just as the traditional automobile helped create the modern American suburb, leaving urban centres hollowed out, the driverless car could have a similar impact, but to an even greater extent.

“It is really important that we don’t allow autonomous vehicles to undo the gains that cities have made in the last 20 years in terms of rebuilding the city centre and creating vibrant downtowns,” said Mr Merker.

Others are concerned that public transportation systems will come under threat, as cheap driverless rides lure passengers away from mass transit and undermine investment in public transportation. If commuters use Uber instead of cycling or taking the train, congestion could also increase, although this would be partly mitigated by carpooling features.

Mr Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant, said that if passengers shift from big-vehicle transit such as buses to smaller vehicles such as Uber or Lyft, dense cities risk descending into “massive” congestion.

“The fantasy of everything being demand-responsive disrupts something that is very important to urban development — namely the knowledge that transit is permanent enough to be a basis of investment,” he said, pointing to the importance of fixed transit lines such as subways.

These concerns over public transport and suburban sprawl point to just two of the areas where Silicon Valley techies could clash with traditional urban planners, but there are likely to be many more.

Mr Doctoroff of Sidewalk Labs said that technologists and urbanists often do not see eye-to-eye. “They really almost don’t speak the same language, and therefore it is hard for them to communicate,” he said.

“Urbanists deal with the world as it is, and all of the constraints ... Technologists tend to think about the future, and be less sensitive to those very real constraints.”

Sidewalk Labs has tried to help bridge that gap, but its efforts have not been without controversy.

Earlier this year, a project to place free Wi-Fi kiosks on pavements in New York had to be hastily reconfigured after people used the kiosks to watch pornography. More recent efforts included a plan to identify open parking spaces using cameras mounted on buses, although the idea has not yet been implemented.

Nevertheless, Mr Doctoroff remains upbeat. It will be several decades before driverless cars are commonplace, he said, but when we do get there, and streets begin to resemble the thoroughfares of 1900, it may feel familiar.

“We are now in a place we consider the future, with data and time, autonomous vehicles,” said Mr Doctoroff. “We are moving back to the future.”

 

THE ECONOMICS OF DRIVERLESS CARS

 

When Uber was founded, one of co-founder Travis Kalanick’s goals was not just to create a transportation app but to make car ownership obsolete.

Achieving that would mean driving down the cost of Uber’s rides so that they are eventually cheaper than owning your own car.

There is still some way to go. According to a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), transport networks such as Uber or Lyft cost about US$2 (S$2.85) per 1.6km per passenger today.

That is more than twice as expensive as driving a private car, which costs about US$0.82 per 1.6km per passenger for a basic saloon, says the study. That figure includes costs such as parking (US$0.16 per 1.6km), insurance (US$0.10 per 1.6km), and fuel (US$0.09 per 1.6km).

However, these economics will reverse dramatically once driverless technologies become commonplace.

Mr Jon Walker, author of the study, expects the cost of driverless rides will become as cheap as personal vehicles in 2018. The main reason is the saved expense of not having a human driver — which accounts for more than half the cost of a chauffeured ride today.

By RMI’s calculations, a driverless car will cost just US$0.46 per 1.6km to operate, with an extra US$0.40 going to the ride-hailing company itself as profit, putting the total cost on a par with personal car ownership.

“City and strategic planners are starting to see that this is real,” said Mr Walker. “We expect there will be a 60 per cent reduction in personal vehicles, and I think that is actually very plausible in the next 20 years.”

The transition away from personal car ownership is already starting to occur in dense urban areas such as New York, San Francisco and Boston, given the high cost of parking. FINANCIAL TIMES

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Leslie Hook is a Financial Times correspondent in San Francisco.