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Should Cities Fear or Welcome an Era of Driverless Cars?

Neal Peirce / Sep 27 2013

For Release Sunday, September 29, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhat will the coming revolution of “autonomous driving” – self-driving vehicles – mean for our cities and metropolitan regions?

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

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  1. Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Driverless cars may be safer for society than current driver-operated versions, that thanks to motorist incompetence, kill us to the tune of 33,000 souls and 300 billion in damage every year. Properly designed, a fleet of vehicles programmed to operate safely rather than carelessly or in great haste (speeding, red light running) could be a good thing.

    I don’t think they will create a suburbia renaissance, though. The costs of fuel, storage, and open space dedicated to vehicles will likely continue to increase, leading more and more people to live a life increasingly independent of the car, whether robotized or not. That may especially be the case in a U.S. that is increasingly dominated by the poor and a tiny wealthy class. It will be the 1% driving these cars, not the rest of us.

  2. Ron Kilcoyne
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    The Victoria Transportation Policy Institute just published an excellent analysis of the potential of self-driving cars. I have been concerned that self-driving cars as envisioned by many tech boosters could move us backwards by encouraging sprawl, less active transportation, more isolation (each of us in our own pods) and destruction of public transit resulting in far more vehicles on the road than would otherwise be. Of course there can also be the utopian antidote of significantly reducing land devoted to autos creating more civilized communities devoid of wide streets and parking lots. My fear is the path of least resistance tends to favor the dystopian over the utopian.
    I believe that the future Neal envisions (and I hope will come to pass) will require car sharing to continue its growth becoming a much bigger player in the urban transportation mix and the generation of revenue for building and maintaining infrastructure to be based on use of and impact on infrastructure (e.g. VMT, congestion pricing, tolls, mileage based insurance rates, market based parking fees) instead of fuel or general taxes. Car sharing doesn’t need technological or legal changes to grow but can be the early adapters of autonomous technologies. Car sharing and better pricing mechanisms can combat sprawl and encourage use of alternatives to the auto with or without self-driving cars.

  3. Gino Carlucci
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I agree 100% with Neal that driverless cars will enhance the trend to denser, more lively cities and suburban centers, not promote more sprawl. I think the effect on land use development patterns in the 21st century will be as dramatic as cars WITH drivers was on the 20th.

    In addition to the redevelopment of car- oriented spaces such as parking lots and roadways, I think car ownership will become rare and car-sharing and car- hailing concepts similar to a hybrid of the Zipcar and Über models will become the dominant form leading to revolutionary (and very positive) changes in our lifestyles as well as significant economic growth.

  4. Richard Wakeford
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    “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.” We would need far fewer cars and parking lots if we could just shed the mindset of needing “one’s personal auto”, and know that the nearest suitable vehicle from a centrally owned pool would deliver itself to any place for use within a few minutes.

  5. Mary DeWolf
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I am busy at work. My driverless car got a flat tire…on its way to the parking lot. It automatically stopped in the middle of the right lane.
    I’d rather have my horse and buggy, so that I can sleep at the reins and be taken safely to the barn!

  6. J.b. diGriz
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I’ve been worrying about the future of transportation in the era of driverless cars, but not with much efficiency. Reading this, and the comments, is leading me to the opinion that it might entrench the current dense populations, who are best positioned to take advantage of car-sharing, and less-dense populations with the median income to afford these vehicles. Watch for them getting cheap enough for the poor living in the suburbs because they have to. It will lock them in to their current situations, by making the long commutes more bearable. We should be wary of the government takin steps to subsidise driverless conversions/trade-ins.

  7. Phineas Baxandall
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    In a world with self-driving cars and spreading acceptance of ridesharing and carsharing, it is not hard to imagine a system in which a fleet of shared automated cars is available to be summoned on demand. Some trips could be served by individual vehicles (as is currently done with carsharing), others in small shared vehicles (as with ridesharing) and still others by high-capacity vehicles (as with transit). Such a system could reduce the need for private cars (which typically sit idle approximately 90 percent of the time) and reduce the need for parking infrastructure – enabling much of the space currently used for warehousing vehicles to be used for other purposes, such as housing, parkland, bicycle lanes, wider sidewalks and new commercial buildings. Such a system might allow for the more intensive use of urban space and safer non-motorized travel – expanding the ability of individuals to travel safely on foot or on bike.

    Regardless of whether automated vehicles are primarily personal or shared, those vehicles may eventually be able to travel much more closely together at speeds that are optimal to reduce congestion – enabling current road capacity to serve more passengers and diminishing the need for new road capacity.

    The transition to autonomous vehicles will not happen overnight, and the potential implications are far from certain. It is, however, certainly premature to assume that autonomous cars would lead to an increased need for new highways or that the prospect of autonomous cars in the future can justify current investment in more auto-focused infrastructure today. In fact, the reverse may be true.

    From a new report to be released Tuesday, October 1, 2013, “A New Way to Go: The Apps, Maps, and New Technologies that are Giving More Americans Freedom to Drive Less” (U.S. PIRG). See

  8. Allen E Neyman
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Well I don’t see any of that happening soon, if ever. “Driverless Cars” are antithetical to the idea. The essence of the car and its popularity world over is embedded in self autonomy. To take it away is like free speech with correctness – possible under the extreme but not really the problem.

    And driver-less means of transportation for passengers are already numerous.

    A logistical expert I happen to know says no, can’t be done, goes against nature. If someday, maybe, if say all land vehicles, antique, or as yet un-invented, are converted? When all possible routes and conflicts of cross traffic are programmable, as long as they exist inside a data base? Can accidents be avoided by programming?

    I accept that a problem statement may not have led to the invention the I Pad. But before setting out to automate the I Pad to improve it, tell me, what problem did we set out and solve with the idea of driver-less cars?

  9. Neal Peirce
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    E-Mail from Gene Stout:

    Thanks for the recent column on driverless cars. It’s a topic that needs much more discussion. And maybe a sense of humor.

    If driverless cars prove safe and reliable, will insurance companies favor them and penalize everyone else?

    Will driverless cars take the fun out of driving? Although it would be nice to have the option of turning on “automatic pilot” on a long drive in the middle of the night.

    How will courts handle speeding tickets and who is responsible?

    What happens if a driverless car slows for a yellow light at the same time a speeding driver behind it tries to run it? How will these cars interact with regular cars?

    Will driverless cars become targets of aggressive motorists who might adopt the “sport” of testing their reaction time?

    Will there ever be a category for driverless cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’elegance? (I suspect not.)

    Will there ever be a cross-country rally for driverless cars, to see which car can go from New York to L.A. the fastest without getting stopped? (The answer is probably yes.)

    Cheers, Gene

  10. Posted October 7, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Quote: “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.”

    No way. Preference is still dominant for low-density living – except in cities like LA where low-density has being artificially inflated in cost (people do not “prefer” what they simply cannot afford). You should look at cities like Houston that still operate demand-responsive planning, which in turn shows us true residential preferences. Here is the real future:

  11. Joel Laramee
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    The widespread use of “driverless cars” is one of those classic things that will be subject to the “tipping point” phenomenon. As with anything else that’s truly new and head-scratching, there will be pilot projects first, spread out across the country. Many experiments.

    And the myriad “problems” that need to be solved in order for widespread use of automated vehicles (of any kind– not just four-rubber-wheeled passenger cars) will be solved in a messy, seemingly chaotic, non-linear way, with plenty of civic debate and legal battles and election slogans– and media commercials!

    As for the question from Allen Neyman– what “problem” are we setting out to solve by use of driverless cars– well, how about 1) way more deaths by car accident than are necessary, 2) way more expenditure on vehicle insurance than is necessary, 3) way more square miles taken up by idle “driver-full” cars than is necessary, and 4) millions upon millions of person-hours wasted sitting in traffic to and from work, every single day of every single year? Do any of those– together or singly– constitute enough of “a problem”?

  12. Allen E Neyman
    Posted October 14, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink


    Your enthusiasm for the idea is evident and healthy, but doesn’t define the problem. “Traffic” is an unforeseen problem created by a masterfully devised solution for personal transportation.

    Take serious note that deaths by transportation systems abound even with highly developed integrated controls used by air traffic, metro systems, and the railroads. They are very safe and practically driverless, and still have horrific accidents.

    I agree, accidents would be reduced, not eliminated, stuff happens. What could happen potentially and unintentionally magnifies accidents by the connectivity. Insurance will be due in any case and paid by the owner of a driverless car or the cybernated highway. It will cost less or more depending on the risk assessment.

    If the individual’s autonomy to drive a car is ultimately the problem you define, and however unlikely that the right is removed, then another means for moving around at will, will be found. Jet back-packs maybe?

    A solution in search of a problem is a man with new suit and no place to go. Why did you buy that suit?


  13. Joel Laramee
    Posted October 14, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink


    You have focused my mind nicely; thank you. The problem is quite simple, really. I want to pick up my iPhone and open an app, and tell that app to send me a car so my wife and I can see a movie at a certain time that evening at a certain movie theatre 15 miles away. There will be a checkbox for “return trip”, which I will leave checked. I will then return to whatever I was engaged in that afternoon.

    When the car is on its way to pick me and my wife up at home, I will receive a text message on my phone. We finish our preparations and when we step out, the car is waiting for us outside, with no one in it. I get in the driver’s seat and my wife sits in the passenger seat. I drive it in manual, back onto the main road, then I re-engage automatic mode. My wife and I converse for the remainder of the ride, until the car stops in front of the theatre. We get out of the car, and head into the building without looking back. The car drives away– I have no idea where to.

    We watch our movie, then come outside. There are a few cars lined up. I push a button on my phone app, and our car flashes its lights and beeps twice. We walk up, get in, I push a button, and it drives us home– while we talk about the movie animatedly, me gesturing dramatically with both hands from time to time, and my wife not saying anything about keeping my hands on the wheel.

    The problem? I can’t do this now. Instead, I have a car payment and an insurance payment and the car sits unused the vast majority of the time. I spend precious waking hours making sure I get from A to B without killing myself or others, instead of reading or talking or just zoning out– while I get from A to B.

    Of course there will always be ways of traveling “off the grid”– there will just be progressively fewer and fewer people who want to do it, and there will be fewer and fewer reasons why you would want to do it in the first place.

  14. Allen E Neyman
    Posted October 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink


    Nicely stated, easy to support. Good idea. Sorry I can’t finish this, my cab is waiting for me out front….