While experts predict fully autonomous cars to be on the road by 2020, just about every automaker in the world is developing self-driving car technology (and getting competition from the likes of Google and Uber). Meanwhile, drivers are coming around to the idea. A recent AAA study indicated that, although 75 percent of those surveyed were afraid to travel in fully autonomous vehicles, almost 60 percent wanted at least some self-driving features in their next cars.
Yet when the National League of Cities looked at the local and regional transportation plans of the 50 most populous metro areas in the United States, only 6 percent had begun preparing for this new wave. To get ready for this inevitable shift, cities will have to keep these four strategies in mind.
READY THE ROADS
While they’re certainly nice to have for human drivers, smooth roads are particularly vital to a fleet of self-driving cars. These vehicles can be challenged by both physical problems with the street surfaces — such as potholes — and the construction process needed to fi x them. After all, it’s easy for a human to recognize a construction worker holding up a stop sign, yet cities will have to alert driverless cars in the same scenarios.
Also, driving patterns will change with autonomous cars, which will be able to travel much closer to each other when all vehicles are connected. As a result, cities will eventually be able to reduce the size of their streets and still handle the same amount of traffic volume.
PREPARE THE PARKING
Parking is typically at a premium in urban areas, and it often requires massive on-street structures. With a wholesale switch to self-driving vehicles, however, two alternatives open up: If people maintain private autonomous cars, they can be dropped off at their destination and have their vehicles park themselves in less congested areas. In a car-sharing economy, the driverless vehicles go on their way to pick up new riders. Fewer parking facilities are needed regardless, providing more freedom for land development and zoning.
Moreover, during the transition period to driverless cars, forward-looking cities like Boston and Nashville are exploring “adaptable” parking structures, with flat floors and taller ceilings. These can be converted to housing or office space as self-driving cars reduce the need for parking spaces.
As self-driving cars hit the streets, a city’s infrastructure will become part of the Internet of things, as each vehicle communicates not only with other vehicles on the road, but also the city’s traffic lights, other parts of its infrastructure, and even its network of first responders. This will allow, for instance, your car to know if there was an accident on your route and then help it determine the quickest, safest alternate path to your destination — as it additionally considers impacts on the flow of traffic throughout the city.
ANTICIPATE THE RIPPLES
In addition to the infrastructure changes, a city with self-driving cars will see consequences in everything from parking meters to speeding tickets to trash collection to the number of accidents on the road. These sea changes will have ripple effects on city budgets, local laws, personnel requirements and city planning.
Of course, fully connected “smart cities” have much to offer beyond supporting autonomous vehicles, which helps explain why many local governments are backing smart-city initiatives right now. Consider Columbus, Ohio: The winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, Columbus will be able build on its current programs — such as Wi-Fi-enabled public buses that let riders use their personal electronic devices — with up to $40 million from the DOT.
Charles Krome, an automotive expert and technology enthusiast, is a writer for Carfax.