Driverless Cars American Urban Future
July 8, 2013

How Will Driverless Cars Affect Our Urban Future?

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

The New York Times ran an article this weekend by Nick Bilton discussing how driverless cars will shape the future in as little as ten years. Google has been working for years to perfect the driverless car, as have other companies that actually produce and sell cars like Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Toyota. And in May, there were even rumors circulating that Google and Tesla in talks to work together on such a car.

While driverless cars would certainly make sense even in today's world of analog, human-operated vehicles, Bilton points out that a future in which self-navigating transport is common could look very different from today. In his piece he brings up two main points: City planning (particularly where parking is concerned) and urban sprawl.

Forbes writer Tim Worstall responded to Bilton's article with counterpoints, claiming that driverless cars would not make cities smaller as Bilton seems to believe. Rather, he says, they'll make everyone spread out even more, further contributing to urban sprawl.

"That city of the future could have narrower streets because parking spots would no longer be necessary," claims Bilton in his piece, suggesting that cities could install robotic machines which pick up cars and install them in tightly packed parking lots, returning them to the driver once they're ready to leave. He also points to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which claim that up to 30 percent of driving in city areas at any given time is dedicated to the search for a parking spot.

Bilton also points to a Harvard University study which estimates as much as one third of property in cities across America is dedicated to parking lots. If these parking lots could be repurposed, as Bilton suggests, more homes and businesses could be built, thereby bringing everyone closer to the city. This in turn would reduce the amount of pollution and reduce our dependence on petroleum. Furthermore, Bilton seems to suggest that if people move closer together, urban sprawl could be reduced, thereby opening up that land for other uses.

Worstall agrees with Bilton in one crucial way: Driverless cars will greatly change the way we commute to and from the city. The main difference presented in his piece, however, regards what we will do with our time when riding in our driverless cars. Though he stops short of spelling it out, Bilton seems to suggest that self-driving cars will lead us to move to the city and spend less time in our cars. Worstall disagrees, saying we'll begin seeing a commute, even a relatively short commute, as time to get a jump start on the days emails and other tasks. This time was once essentially written off as wasted; no one can get any work done sitting behind the wheel, even in the most gruelingly slow traffic.

"So, we'd quite probably be willing to spend more time in this manner than we currently are in unproductive commuting. This makes longer commutes viable: and thus we would expect to see the exurbs flowing ever further out into the countryside," writes Worstall.

Breaking it down, Worstall assumes that when the cost of gas and time is considered, someone who lives two hours away from their place of work could end up losing only $30 a day if their cars drove them to work as opposed to the current $110 in lost wages. This, says Worstall, is enough to drive people away from the city towards a larger house on cheaper land.

These are conversations which must be had sooner than later. Yet even as some researchers are expecting driverless cars to be a part of our everyday society within a span of a decade, old habits die hard. Driving and the old American love affair with the automobile has been a more or less ubiquitous aspect of our culture for at least half a century, and changing our lifestyles as well as our attitudes towards driving may take considerably longer than a decade. That's not taking into consideration the amount of regulation needed to usher in a driverless car future.