Top 6 – How Autonomous Cars will Change the City

In my part #2 on walkability I was going to talk about some urban planning models such as New Urbanism, New Pedestrianism and the Radburn Model. I was going to praise the value of the Woonerf. I was going to attempt some cleverness at how these might be synthesised.

But along comes the ‘robot car’, or more accurately the Autonomous Car– and I’m throwing almost all of it out the window, because now everything will change.

We already have add-ons that allow cars to park themselves – but it’s the crash-avoidance technology [already on the market] that will completely change the way we plan our cities. By 2020 we will have fully autonomous cars that drive themselves. This will happen… the only real question is how long will it take to fully transition all of our existing vehicles?


Image by General Motors. Click on link to go to source.

Here are my Top 6 city-changing impacts, all for the better;

  1. Neighbourhood Reclaimed. Autonomous Cars [ACs] will be programmed to give way to people, animals, anything that moves. We’ll be able to cross the street with less fear [whatever ‘street’ will mean], let our kids play cricket ‘out the front’ again, and we’ll regain status in our own domain. The Woonerf – a shared street with pedestrian priority will become ubiquitous, and our streets will become landscaped again.
  2. Streets will shrink. Along with the crash-avoidance tech comes the precision driving. ACs will drive nose to tail much like a train, talking to each other. Same number of vehicles [say] but no spacing required. There will be other drivers [sorry] keeping a lid on vehicle use – such as more compact city planning and better transit, so roads won’t need to be nearly as big. Allows more landscaping, more shade, more local food, more habitat and habitation.
  3. No kerbs. Might sound trivial, but built up kerbs are a strong symbol in our neighbourhoods – they say ‘people stay here and cars stay there’… they delineate space and tell us where we don’t belong, and they get rid of storm water rather than let it stay to soak in. No need with ACs because they’ll have sensors to park precisely where we want them. And no line marking, no signage clutter, no traffic lights or barriers etc. Nice and clean.
  4. Less materials-intensive cars. Smaller, lighter. With the crash-avoidance tech the cars won’t need to be built to withstand impacts, at least not the same way. Less materials, lighter weight [therefore less fuel]. “would you like yours in wood or bio-plastic sir?” Amory Lovins’ ‘Factor 10’ will be achievable.
  5. No driving [sorry guys]. Therefore more time for communication. And if we want to move some goods from point A to point B, we’ll just plug in the instructions, no doubt via a voice App, and off the car will go, at night [smaller streets again], without us. No more taxi drivers either – they’ll be redundant. Or maybe the funniest ones will survive?
  6. No emissions. If we trend the growth of national renewable energy smart grids, EV tech [Electric Vehicle], battery life and recharge time, all of our cars will self-organise to re-charge at the most suitable time based on renewable energy peaks and troughs. All of this has already arrived in separate components. They’ll probably even trade energy between themselves on our behalf.

It’s not a Utopia by default, but at least the Autonomous Car will allow us to re-focus city planning on people and place rather than traffic and pace. As with any futuring, it is in our hands to steer towards the outcome we want.

What would your ideal neighbourhood street look like, and how would you spend your time in the car if you didn’t have to drive it?


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