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How autonomous cars are driving the city of the future
POSTED | 0:05 AM | 24-04-2016

How autonomous cars are driving the city of the future

-- By Colin Nagy

As self-driving vehicles edge closer to our roads, what does the new technology mean for services and businesses in cities?

The idea of self-driving cars is plastered across the media. But a lot of the talk is about a futuristic, Jetson-style approach at a fairly superficial level. Some pieces go deeper, but there’s a dearth of investigation on the subject. And it’s becoming reality faster than anyone thinks.

In Austin at SXSW this year, I was joined by Stanford University’s Reilly Brennan, who runs their automotive program, Revs, as well as Seleta Reynolds of the Los Angeles department of transportation to discuss one element of autonomy: the implications for urban planning. How cities are developed, what this will mean for reclaimed space, what this will mean for the underserved, as well as how cities will be funded in the future when there is no human error to tax.

Following are key highlights of the panel discussion:

What is the current state of autonomous vehicles?

According to Brennan, we have a few years to go before autonomous vehicles are at full capacity, but we’re getting close.

At the same time, an unusual thing happened in parallel: the rise of transportation network companies like Uber and Lift. It is rare to have two things happen at the same time, and so there is a big opportunity in technology to re-frame what a city should mean.

How will our relationships with a city change for the better?

Cities have tremendous challenges that they are trying to confront in terms of safety and sustainability, says Reynolds. At the same time, transportation, whether you’re in a car, bus, bike, walking, plays a key role in your satisfaction and happiness. Reynolds believes that whatever happens, it will only be a net positive if it contributes to making a city safer, more bike friendly and better for local businesses.

There’s huge potential to turn cities into places that bring us joy instead of anger and aversion due to traffic, gridlock, etc. There’s also the idea that with no need for parking, cities have a tremendous amount of reclaimed space. Of course, this transition will not happen all at once, so there will continue to have to be temporary vehicle storage, 100% of the auto fleet won’t always be in use.

How will cities be funded?

Cities are often funded in part by human error, such as speeding tickets. They are also funded by revenue from meters and other parking, and most cities issue bonds against their commercial parking revenue. This money doesn’t necessarily go to transportation, instead it usually goes to fund public safety – police, fire, libraries, parks.

With a shift to autonomous vehicles this will change, and there needs to be a discussion now as to what can fill the gap. This is a huge political issue that is not being discussed with sufficient frequency.

Some think this will re-open the idea of congestion pricing, but Reynolds asserts that we need to examine and test other revenue models to acknowledge that users are not paying this charge to fund transport.

How will the underserved be helped?

There are ways for autonomous vehicles to help those in urban areas. The goal would be lowering costs to below that of traditional public transport. If you move to autonomous shared vehicles you can get the costs down significantly but that also has implications if people move completely away from public transport.

An ideal scenario would be where one could move from one to the other at the same level, budget wise. In addition, those without the physical capacity to drive due to condition or age, will have new opportunities for mobility and getting from point A to point B without having to ask for help or accessing government services.

How will brands interface with cities?

There’s a dystopian vision for cities, whereby a user could use a “pass lane” for an extra price. This will be a big challenge when navigating policy for how brands interact with cities.

At the same time, since attention is not focused on driving, cars will turn into more living room style environments occupied by more brands, and content. In China the founder of LeTV, the Chinese Netflix is investing heavily in autonomous vehicles because he sees it at a new media platform and untapped opportunity for attention.

A harmonious vision of the future?

In an ideal world, we will see transportation as an efficient and harmonious utility and it will be seamless to move between autonomous vehicles and public transport with a monthly transportation budget. We’ll see safer places where no one dies from unnecessary accidents, and we’ll see the things we love about cities get better because public spaces will be opened up. We won’t need as much parking provision, perhaps there will be more affordable housing closer to workspaces. In short, a huge boon for productivity and safety.

Of course, it might not play out this way. One could make the argument that we’ll see dual-class systems, the rich gliding through fast commuter lanes, and the commuter belt itself go farther and farther away from the middle of cities. But it is wide open, and it’s time to start figuring this out.

Photo caption: Google’s autonomous vehicle is one example of a self-driving car -- but what impact will these cars have on cities? Photograph: Handout/Reuters

Colin Nagy is executive director at The Barbarian Group. Follow him on Twitter@CJN

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