For Release Sunday, September 29, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group
The answer is a lot. Eventually.
For decades, cars and trucks have had some degree of automation, with cruise control. Since 2003, manufacturers have been phasing in automated parking for advanced models. Backup and lane change warning systems are installed in some auto models. And at this moment there are many experiments to open an era of totally driverless cars – including lasers, cameras, radar and like technologies, spearheaded by such firms as Toyota, Google, BMW, Volvo and General Motors.
But don’t look for zero-driver vehicles on roadways soon. State laws have uniformly required that motor vehicles have drivers, and that drivers must be able to control their vehicles. Some laws even prohibit vehicles from steering, braking or accelerating by themselves. Still, Nevada, Florida and California have recently allowed driverless vehicles, at least for testing purposes.
But a nationwide switchover to full and legal use of driverless vehicles could take many years – and a lot more proof of their safety. “We believe the individual should always have the ability to disengage and take over the system of a vehicle,” James Pisz, Toyota’s North American corporate business strategy manager, told a recent “Meeting of the Minds” policy conference in Toronto.
In the meantime, more and more features for fully automated driving – assuming the legal driver is still able to take control – will be appearing. They’ll include mapping technology to steer to target destinations. Plus electronics to move in street and freeway traffic, react to flow and stops in traffic, and avoid hitting bikers or pedestrians (even, Pisz suggests, “a black-clad figure at night.”)
Yet there is a formidable list of new issues to resolve. Will drivers need special training to control a self-driving vehicle? Will vehicles be able to speed – or will they be stuck at the speed limit even on an emergency trip to a hospital? Will a driver be allowed to text? If a self-driving car gets in a collision, does blame fall to the driver or the manufacturer?
The first totally driverless vehicles may be relatively slow-moving vans, operating on strictly defined routes to serve campuses, parking to downtowns or sports events.
Bottom line: Truly independent, self-driving vehicles won’t change our urban and metro form soon. But in 10 to 20 years, they might. And what might happen then? How will the life of cities and metro regions be changed?
One theory is a lot. That we’ll see a return to the unrelenting suburban sprawl America experienced from the end of World War II to the advent of the Great Recession. Why bother to live in the city, goes this theory, if you can live miles out, cruise to work texting, reading or sleeping, as you count on computer systems to minimize your actual travel time, and then step out of your car at your destination and tell the vehicle to go off and find itself a parking space?
But that may not be the ideal life for the vast numbers of people who actually value city – or suburban center – life. We’re into a new century with new tastes. A significant share of today’s youth and families are showing less interest in driving, or in retreats to suburban getaways with multicar garages. Their pick, instead: the dynamism and attractions of urban living. Plus, current-day urbanism isn’t just being celebrated in big city centers – it’s present in increasing numbers of lively neighborhood and suburban centers around our metros, as well as in small cities, too.
There are also the advantages that automated driving can bring to cities themselves. A major scourge on urban landscapes has been the millions of parking slots that were believed to be necessary to attract anyone to live, work or play in their downtowns – a policy that’s delivered sterile parking garages and even uglier open air lots, plus flight to boring, suburban, corporate campuses.
In an era of driverless cars, it will be different. One will be able to step out of one’s personal auto for work – or a movie, or a dinner at a restaurant – and then let the vehicle drive itself to (and come back from) its designated peripheral parking slot. Or, in many cities, you could still take a convenient transit ride home, or ride your bike, or pick up a bike share. And not worry about some automobile hitting you!
To a degree, the rise of automated driving depends on a reasonably prosperous national economy. But given that, one can expect to see lots of infill locations for residences, stores and other urban activity taking shape. We’ll see denser, more walkable centers across the country, as smart developers note consumers’ wish for lively, mixed-use settings. In the end, my bet is that driverless cars won’t stop all this activity – they’ll just abet it.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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