/How autonomous vehicles will transform cities and suburbs by ending traffic jams, parking problems and road rage

How autonomous vehicles will transform cities and suburbs by ending traffic jams, parking problems and road rage

Rush hour in Singapore, a crowded island city of nearly 6 million people, is much like rush hour in almost every major city in the world: a living hell of clogged highways and stressed-out drivers. The dilemma, if left alone, will only get worse if, as is expected, Singapore adds a million more residents in the next decade. But city planners have no intention of leaving it alone. They have in mind a solution that is radical and all-encompassing: to replace car ownership with ride-sharing.

The key ingredient in this plan is the emerging technology of autonomous vehicles (AVs)—cars and shuttle buses that, through the miracle of artificial intelligence, can drive themselves with no human at the wheel. Imagine replacing molar-grinding rush-hour gridlock with a choreography of driverless Ubers whisking people to and from work.

To realize this future, Singapore is making farsighted investments in research and infrastructure and rewriting its transportation policies and regulations. It built a sprawling test track, complete with fake buildings, steep hills and a rain machine. It is working with 10 different companies on plans to roll out fleets of driverless cars.

The municipal agency that keeps a tight regulatory grip on cars and roads in Singapore—it currently charges commuters nearly $15,000 a year for the privilege of owning a car and using the roads during rush hour—recently removed the requirement that cars have human drivers. All new residential developments must now abide by rules that both accommodate self-driving vehicles and discourage car ownership: narrow roads, special road markings, gentler curves, specific curb heights and fewer parking spaces.

The first driverless buses and shuttles hit the city’s streets in November. If all goes well, a large fleet will soon be cruising the roads, calculating their routes on the fly based on where they need to pick up passengers and drop them off. Then a fleet of AVs will be deployed to work nights, sweeping the streets and delivering packages. “The goal here,” says Niels de Boer, who heads autonomous vehicle research for the Energy Research Institute at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, “is to make having your own car completely unnecessary by 2030.”

HRI screen waiting for you to cross. Courtesy of Drive.ai

At the dawn of the 20th century, the automobile was heralded as a way to free cities from the scourge of horse manure. Cars delivered on that promise, and they made us a far more mobile society. But they also stuck us with a slew of pervasive problems that haunt us today: urban blight, suburban sprawl, congestion, a rich-poor divide, a health-crushing lack of physical activity and enough pollution to upend the Earth’s climate.

If Singapore exemplifies the promise of driverless cars to alleviate the mistakes of the past 100 years, most cities seem positioned to once again allow technology to overwhelm them. For instance, heavily congested New York City lacks Singapore’s ability to focus on a transformative vision and follow through with regulatory muscle. Only a few years ago, a bid to impose road tariffs on cars that enter its perpetually traffic-clogged downtown failed. The Big Apple currently has no testing program in place for driverless cars—General Motors was planning one for 2019 but canceled it when the City Council raised concerns about safety. Some European countries and China are taking steps to prepare for AVs, but not one major U.S. city has introduced new traffic or development laws intended to boost AVs or push drivers to use them, as Singapore has.

If cities don’t get their development acts together soon, driverless vehicles will likely make traffic far worse in the coming years. As driverless car services become more convenient and affordable, they will lure more people onto the road. The vehicles themselves will drive slowly and carefully, waiting with infinite patience for the car up ahead that is trying to parallel park for the third time or the pedestrians who play chicken in the crosswalk. Drivers will swerve to avoid the lumbering vehicles and cut them off. Road rage will rise.

A driverless car on a trial road test in Singapore on August 29, 2016. A U.S. company that launched the world’s first public trials of driverless cars in Singapore plans to expand the tests in three other Asian countries, a company executive said August 29. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty

Just as Amazon rode roughshod over retail and Facebook and Google torpedoed publishing and the media, driverless cars could soon transform transportation in ways we may or may not like. We could watch passively as congestion, stagnation and sprawl get worse. Or we could choose to invest in an AV-inspired renovation of cities and suburbs, including a vast network of sensor-rich, high-speed smart roadways.

The coming of self-driving cars will push us in one of those two directions, depending on how public and private forces orchestrate—or don’t—the integration of AVs into our towns and cities.

‘Massive Deployments’ in Two Years

Whatever we do, we need to do it quickly. A confluence of new technology and new business models has made AVs possible and practical. Advances in artificial intelligence have produced software that can recognize every road feature and object, allowing vehicles to smoothly and precisely navigate through them. And the software learns, getting more adept at recognition and control with each mile driven.

Meanwhile, the advent of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft has paved the way for affordable access to self-driving cars. Most people won’t be able to spring for their own private AV, but everyone will be able to afford a ride in one. Pilot versions of AV fleets have sprung up not just in techno-centric, innovation-embracing American cities like Boston and San Francisco but also in Dallas, Las Vegas, Detroit and Pittsburgh, in partnership with a range of pioneering AV companies with names like Transdev, Drive.ai and Navya. Columbus, Ohio, not normally a hotbed of pioneering high-tech development, has already pulled together $140 million to invest in driverless fleets. It’s expected that by the end of 2019, the number of AVs in the United States will reach the tens of thousands, with hundreds of thousands expected in the next few years.

Pilot models of the Uber self-driving car are displayed at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center on September 13, 2016, in Pittsburgh. Uber launched a groundbreaking driverless car service, stealing ahead of Detroit auto giants and Silicon Valley rivals with technology that could revolutionize transportation. ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty

Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, already has 600 self-driving vans in Phoenix and more in 24 other test cities. It recently became the first company allowed to place AVs with no human backup driver on California’s roads. It took Waymo AVs six years to rack up their first million miles; they now have 10 million under their seat belts and are rolling up another million every month. The company has 82,000 additional self-driving Chrysler Pacifica–based

minivans ready for deployment the minute cities give them the green light, along with a coming fleet of 20,000 Jaguar self-driving I-Pace SUVs primed to run a million trips per day within two years.

Ford, GM, Volvo and BMW are all racing to catch up, and so are the AV startups. Optimus Ride, one of the companies running pilot programs in Boston, won’t release details about pending contracts and approvals, but CEO Ryan Chin claims the commitments are huge. “We’ve got a big pipeline of agreements outside of Massachusetts we’re getting ready to fulfill,” he says. “They’ll be massive deployments happening in two years.”

As those services are rolled out, the technology will likely pick up momentum. It will bring businesses closer to their customers by making goods and services more accessible. Shops and restaurants may choose to provide customers with free driverless transport; Walmart is piloting a program in Chandler, Arizona, to bring customers to its store in Waymo robocars. Toyota plans to make driverless vans that can be configured into a mobile version of any businesses—Pizza Hut and Domino’s have already struck deals with Toyota and Ford. Ride-sharing services themselves could help businesses calculate how best to serve their customers by providing data about where they go to spend their money.

A Billion Parking Spaces

The potential of driverless cars to transform our lives for the better is difficult to overstate. The shift to a driverless transportation system could free people up to conveniently hop between their bucolic rural homes and the traffic-free, highly walkable city. In this vision, everything from groceries to medical services will be whisked to our doorsteps at lower costs. Parking lots and even some roadways will be reclaimed as clusters of shops or homes, or as community green spaces.

Image of a car park. Jason Hawkes/Getty

All-electric cars will help save city dwellers from pollution and greenhouse gases. AVs could help eliminate the 7 million collisions that Americans get into every year and that have taken 650,000 lives since 2000. And they will help U.S. drivers take back the combined 30 billion generally unproductive and not especially pleasant hours they spend behind the wheel each year, much of it stuck in traffic or hunting for parking.

About 30 percent of all the land in U.S. cities is taken up by parking lots or garages. But driverless cars don’t need to be parked—they can drop off a passenger and roll right on to the next pickup. “There are more than a billion parking spaces in America,” says Nico Larco, a professor of architecture and environment at the University of Oregon, who also co-directs the school’s Sustainable Cities Initiative. “If AVs are doing all the driving, we can get rid of 90 percent of them.”

The space that would be freed up could lead to an urban renaissance, transforming cities into cleaner, quieter, more pleasantly strollable places. “Urban planning will change around the AV,” says Tracey Zhen, president of pioneering urban-car-sharing service Zipcar, acquired by Avis in 2013.

Some developers are already laying the groundwork for these kinds of changes. One hot trend is for builders to design parking facilities to be easily transformed into business or residential space. In car-crazy Los Angeles, which currently devotes well over 200 square miles of land to parking, a new 4,500-space garage at the airport and a 1,000-space garage in the Arts District are both being built to be convertible. That’s happening in Cincinnati too, with other cities studying the results. One study by an urban research group predicted AVs would start to transform New York City by 2040, and perhaps sooner in Boston and San Francisco.

Driving—or, rather, riding—through a well-planned urban center would be more pleasant and efficient. Information would be relayed to AVs from the streets so they can find the fastest routes and avoid or coordinate with other cars. “The whole city will be smarter, with cameras and other sensors everywhere,” says Ford Motor Co. Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington.  

Daniel Piatkowski, an architecture professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who studies the impact of AVs on regional planning, says the technology will counter one of our greatest modern woes: congestion. “AVs will take full advantage of the complete road network,” he says, “moving along quickly even when they’re bumper-to-bumper.”

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