Self-driving cars: 5 ways they could change city life

When your car drives itself, you can sit back and watch videos during your commute. But driverless cars will also change our lives and cities in ways you might not imagine. Here are 5 of them.

Experts envision ultra-convenient transit, an end to parking lots, even an end to car ownership

Google's newest self-driving car will hit California roads this summer. Experts think self-driving cars could eliminate start-and-stop congestion. (Tony Avelar/Associated Press)

Google's newest self-driving car is set to hit California roads this summer and Nissan has reiterated that it hopes to have its first self-driving models on the road by 2020. Self-driving cars could be coming soon, in spite of a few hurdles that need to be overcome, including some safety concerns.

It's worth considering some of the unexpected changes they could make to our lives, especially once technology and laws allow them to cruise around town with no humans inside.

Obviously, when your car can drive itself, you can sit back and watch videos, eat a nice meal with a knife and fork, or work on your big presentation for a meeting during the ride. 

But there are lots of other ways in which driverless vehicles could change far more than your own driving experience — experts say they could have a huge effect on the design of our cities and the way we live. 

Here are a few of them.

1. Transit connections will be more convenient

For many people, especially those who live or work in the suburbs, a big downside of public transit is it typically isn't door-to-door. Sometimes you have to walk some distance to the nearest transit stop at both ends of your trip, and leaving a car at one end solves only half the problem.

Many people like Ginger Goodwin, director of the Policy Research Center at Texas A&M Transportation Institute, see automated vehicles as a way to tackle this "first mile" and "last mile" issue. When you get to your final transit stop, a self-driving car can be there to pick you up and take you to your destination.

On the downside, those who currently drive for a living — taxi drivers, couriers, truckers and others — could find job opportunities becoming very scarce. 

2. Cities won't waste space on parking

Right now, huge swaths of asphalt in cities are set aside to store vehicles that spend most of the day doing nothing. But when your car can drive itself, you'll never have to circle around and around looking for a spot near your destination to park it — the car can drop you off, then give someone else a ride or make a delivery, or park itself in a neighbourhood with more space.

Right now, huge swaths of asphalt in cities are set aside to store vehicles that spend most of the day doing nothing. When your car can drive itself, it won't need to be parked while you're at work, and fewer parking lots will be needed. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

"City planners are rethinking how they develop parcels of property if there's not as much drive-your-car-and-park-it behaviour," says Chris Barker, connected car and transportation consultant with the C3 Consultancy Group.

That will mean fewer vehicles and fewer parking spaces will be needed to begin with. But it also means they wouldn't have to be tied to particular destinations.

What could the space previously set aside for parking be used for? More green space? Sprawling sidewalk patios? Whatever it is, you can imagine it will be an improvement over a parking lot.

3. No one will need to own a car

In the near future, you may be able to call a pickup truck to take you to and from Ikea, or a minivan to take your kids to hockey practice. While you're not using it, it could do other things for other people on their dime.

In a future like that, says Rob Shirra, managing director of the Intelligent Transportation System Society of Canada, "Do we care anymore to own a vehicle?"

Not owning a vehicle could free up huge part of the family budget, including the cost of the vehicle itself, insurance, maintenance and fuel

"That's going to be a huge societal change," Shirra says.

It would also be a big change for automakers.

4. 'Platooning' could end traffic congestion

Earlier this month, a self-driving tractor-trailer was given government approval to drive itself on highways in Nevada. Letting trucks like the Freightliner Inspiration drive themselves will do more than just free up truck drivers to surf the internet while they cruise the highway.

This is the dashboard of Daimler's Freightliner Inspiration self-driving truck, which has approval to drive itself on Nevada roads. Self-driving trucks will be able to drive in closely-spaced platoons, reducing congestion. (John Locher/Associated Press)

It could also reduce congestion, experts say. Trucking companies envision that automated technology will let them bunch up trucks into platoons separated by just five metres, travelling at highway speeds, says Rob Shirra, managing director of the Intelligent Transportation System Society of Canada.

Platooning all vehicles, including cars, could keep them moving at a constant rate on the highway, without the start-and-stop congestion that many of us are now familiar with, especially at rush hour.

5. A different way of doing deliveries

Eventually, Shirra says, it may not even be necessary to have truck drivers, who need to sleep and take breaks.

"So the cost of moving freight goes way down and the efficiency goes way up," he said.

Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronic systems at Ford Research and Innovation, thinks that in many cases, delivery trucks will no longer clog up city streets. Instead, while you're at work and not using your car, it could go pick up a package for you or someone else.


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