Why the Google car could change everything

Smart homes are one thing, but we want to put them into smart communities and smart cities. Most urbanists these days think the suburbs are pretty useless, because the very young and the very old can’t get around without someone driving them; more land is devoted to moving and parking cars than to the people who live there; everybody is burning gas and sitting in congestion trying to get from Point A to Point B. But the smart city is another thing altogether. Right now, the thinking is that cities should be dense, walkable and cyclable, keeping us healthier by keeping us out of our cars. As author Taras Grescoe summarizes in a tweet, "The real future of the city is 21st century communications (smartphone apps, twitter, texts) and 19th century transport (subway, trams, bikes, walking)."

So what happens when the roads are full of Google cars? How will it change things? Four years ago I was advisor to a workshop that studied the future of the autonomous car at the Institute Without Boundaries in Toronto. The group, made up of some of the smartest people in the business and some very smart students (and me) came up with some interesting conclusions:
  • Imagine a city without parked cars or garages. Since the car doesn't need a driver, it can go and move somebody or someone else. That's why they will mostly be shared.
  • Imagine a city with perhaps 90 percent fewer cars; that's the percentage of time most of us park our cars, but the autonomous ones are always on the move, so we don't need as many.
  • Imagine a city without traffic lights or stop signs. They are not needed anymore since cars just flow through each other's streams of traffic at intersections.
  • Imagine a re-greened city with boulevards and trees where there used to be multilane roads, parks where there used to be parking lots.
  • The city becomes a whole lot nicer without cars. But what gets a whole lot better are the suburbs — they actually begin to work....more