How Self-Driving Cars Will Change How We Travel

In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $4.9 billion contract that involves the design, construction, and operation of a “people mover” at the Los Angeles International Airport. The elevated system will be made up of self-driving electric trains that take passengers from one terminal to another. It’s expected to come out in 2023.

If this teaches us anything, it’s that self-driving technology has the power to change the nature of travel and transportation. After all, the last time the world went through a significant change was when the first Ford Model T cars replaced the horse and buggy.

But even though the first cars ushered in a new age of modern cars, the reign of the automobile also paved the way to pollution, congestion, and sprawl. Vehicles also aren’t impervious to wear-and-tear, calling for regular tune-ups and maintenance. As a result of these inconveniences, some are turning to driverless cars as the ultimate transportation solution.

A Gradual Shift in Urban Design

The world still has a long way to go before self-driving cars become the new norm. Experts predict that the widespread adoption of driverless cars will take 20 to 30 years. The gradual shift will depend on affordability, driver safety records, and the public’s willingness to embrace new technology. 

Urban planners have started grappling with the crucial questions, however. How much parking space will autonomous vehicles need? Will customers feel more inclined to buy driverless cars or buy into car-sharing services? How many people will continue to commute when they don’t have to get behind the wheel anymore?

Urban planners believe that the rise of autonomous cars will bring about a positive, gradual shift in urban design. For one, it encourages people-centered design that makes city life more convenient. 

Creating a Pedestrian-Oriented Society

What sets driverless vehicles apart from standard cars is that they drop off passengers and move on quickly afterwards. Experts claim this could pave the way for a pedestrian-oriented society since it frees up the space once taken up by parking lots and garages. More space translates to bigger and wider areas for housing, parks, and infrastructure. 

Some cities are already expansion-ready, with spaces designed for “infill development.” In Los Angeles and Cincinnati, for instance, recently built parking garages contain flat floors and high ceilings that can easily be turned into apartments or office spaces. Residents can expect more of these structures to be built as the demand for parking spaces dwindle.

A Less Stressful Drive

Replacing parking lots with open spaces and parks also make cities more aesthetically pleasing. With the right planning, driverless technology could increase car-sharing among residents. Reducing overall traffic congestion and air pollution is one of the strongest benefits of driverless technology, especially when traveling to the airport it itself already poses a major inconvenience. 

In a similar vein, extra lane space makes walking and biking more appealing. Some people might even forgo car ownership and feel more inclined to live in distant cities and remote suburbs. But what makes driverless cars so appealing is that they put less stress on the driver. A two-hour commute becomes more bearable when travellers can watch a movie, hold a business meeting, or take a nap, for instance. 

Reclaiming Bigger Living Spaces

Autonomous cars are expected to travel much closer to each other than the conventional car. As a result, it can help free up bigger space on the road for bikes, sidewalks, and landscaping. Self-driving cars also have a unique feature that allows them to communicate with other cars and make navigation easier. As a result, using a driverless car lowers dependency on road signs and overhead traffic signals. 

Cities like Boston have been testing driverless cars since 2016. A study from the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group reveals that self-driving vehicles will take up only half of Boston’s current parking space, and the extra space could be used for bike lanes and parks. 

But reclaiming bigger living spaces begs the question: what happens to all the underground parking areas? Developers suggest repurposing the underground spaces into data centers or athletic clubs. 

Convenient Traveling for the Young & Old

When it comes to predicting future consumer behavior and costs, most experts are still in the dark. After all, no one knows how much a self-driving car will cost. Researchers also explain that traffic congestion will depend on the frequency of car-sharing and how much road space driverless cars traveling closer together will free up.

In particular, self-driving vehicles benefit those who are kept off the road due to physical disability. Self-driving vehicles grant newfound independence to the young, elderly, and people with disabilities. After all, they can enjoy greater opportunities like entering the workforce, contributing to the local economy, and attending community events. As transportation becomes more convenient, residents might likewise feel more encouraged to take more trips, use transit less, and move to less accessible cities. 

Successfully transitioning into the driverless cars of the future depends on paying attention to what their impact could be. Over a century ago, car manufacturers failed to consider the impact of a vehicle on the landscape as a whole. But since the world is smarter now, it’s easier to learn from the past. After all, if autonomous cars have the power to cut pollution and traffic, then it’s worth planning and preparing for.


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