Will Self-Driving Cars Make Our Cities Better Or Worse?

When you talk about the future of transportation*, some of us think about more bicyclists and bicycling, and a more bicycle-friendly world. However, for the average Joe, I think the main thing that comes to mind these days is self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars are actually getting much closer to commercial reality than many of us have thought. Rather than something 10 years out, this may be something that is just around the corner. Google just announced that it is building 100 prototype self-driving cars from the ground up:

google self driving car prototype

first google self driving car

We’re now exploring what fully self-driving vehicles would look like by building some prototypes; they’ll be designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention. They won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal… because they don’t need them. Our software and sensors do all the work. The vehicles will be very basic—we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible—but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that’s an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.

Safety is certainly a plus, but more cars on the road and more driving isn’t. That means more congestion, more pollution, and more places built for cars rather than people (or, as some might put it, for people in metal and plastic bubbles).

The thing is, self-driving cars could be a blessing or a menace. Self-driving cars could be used to enable more people to drive around in congested cities. They could make traffic jams less painful for people in them since the “drivers” no longer have to pay attention and can do other things, which would likely lead to longer traffic jams…

However, self-driving cars could also speed up growth in carsharing, which could cut down on automobile ownership and driving in general. And small self-driving cars could also make our transportation systems much more efficient and genuinely safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. We’ll have to see, but as TreeHugger‘s Lloyd Alter aptly notes, we better get thinking about and planning for this now! If we want more livable cities, we have to create them. Lloyd writes:

The autonomous car will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them. Urban planners and theorists have to start thinking about this or we will screw it up again.

*Disclosure: This articles was supported by Dassault Systemes

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