Driverless cars will take off traffic on roads but sprawl suburban areas
Christopher Wims is giving his thoughts of the driverless cars in a feature of WSJ, the Wall Street Journal. It is up to you to see what advantages and disadvantages driverless cars will bring, at least in the USA
Imagine a world in which hardly anyone owns a car. Instead, most people subscribe to a service for self-driving cars, probably a mashup of the current players in the space, which include Google, Uber, Lyft, Apple, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Tesla, BMW, Toyota, General Motors, Ford and others.
Call this hypothetical service Applewagen, or Tyft or, what the heck, Goober. The service is great. You whip out your circa-2025 smartwatch, which has all but replaced your phone, bark a command and a self-driving car appears, from a fleet circulating nearby. Maybe there are other people in the car, headed in your direction. Don’t worry, they are friendly. They have four-star ratings just as you do, and anyway they are too absorbed in their augmented-reality headsets to talk to you.
Here is the weirdest thing about this hypothetical future: where you live. Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95 % of the time. With the savings, you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.
But according to Robert McDonald, lead scientist for the Global Cities Program at the Nature Conservancy, there is something akin to a law of nature about new transportation technology: The faster humans move, the bigger and more sprawling our cities become. Researchers from New York University and the University of Connecticut examining a global sample of 30 cities found that population density has been declining between 1 % and 1.5 % a year since 1890. Not coincidentally, this is the era when electric street cars were introduced in major cities.
But wait, you might say, do not millennials prefer to live in cities? That is widely believed, but not true, according to Jed Kolko, former chief economist at real-estate site Trulia. Not only do 66% of millennials tell pollsters they want to live in the suburbs, they are moving there, as population growth in suburbs outstrips growth in cities. “Millennials with kids in school, that’s children 6 and older, are actually less urban today than the same age group was 15 years ago,” says Kolko.
This points to an important fact often overlooked by the people—primarily in dense coastal cities—who write about the impact of self-driving cars: About half of Americans live in, and are perfectly fine with, suburbs.
Your commute will be downright luxurious, quiet time in a vehicle designed to allow you to work or relax. Shared self-driving cars will have taken so many vehicles off the road—up to 80% of them, according to one Massachusetts Institute of Technology study—that you’re either getting to work in record time or traveling farther in the same time, to a new class of exurbs.
This future isn’t inevitable, of course. When it comes to self-driving cars, the old maxim that nobody knows anything could hardly be more true.
In other words, it is a kind of wishful thinking, an act of technological determinism, to think that self-driving cars will override Americans’ longstanding preference for wide open spaces.
There is a raft of reasons I could be wrong. Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, says a coming study conducted in collaboration with Uber Technologies Inc. found that the denser a city, the easier it will be to live without a car once self-driving car services arrive. This isn’t complicated to understand—it is the same reason that Manhattan is full of cabs but getting one in Queens is next to impossible.
If Ratti’s projections are correct, and self-driving cars can radically reduce traffic without cannibalizing existing mass transit—the hypotheticals pile up—it is possible that self-driving cars will make many cities liveable in a way they aren’t now. Imagine if every U.S. city had a hybrid public-private mass-transit system on par with those in New York City or Washington, D.C., comprised entirely of self-driving vehicles.
“There’s an advantage in being dense so I don’t think we’ll see sprawl like in the 1950s and 60s,” Mr. Ratti says.
But I am not betting on it. Americans are stubborn, and existing zoning regulations, roads and buildings are expensive and difficult to alter. As Mr. McDonald observes, one thing hasn’t changed over the past 100-plus years: The easier it is to get from point A to point B, the farther away from the centre city people are apt to live. Even the era of self-driving cars can’t change that.