Jul 09, 2013

    Driverless cars could reshape cities

    WHILE driverless cars might still seem like science fiction outside Silicon Valley, the people working and thinking about these technologies are starting to ask what these cars could mean for the city of the future. The short answer is "a lot".

    Imagine a city where you don't drive in circles looking for a parking spot, because your car drops you off and scoots off to some location to wait, sort of like taxi holding pens at airports.

    Inner-city carparks could become parks. Traffic lights could be less common because hidden sensors in cars and streets coordinate traffic.

    And, yes, parking tickets could become a rarity as cars would be smart enough to know where they are not supposed to be.

    As scientists and car companies forge ahead - many expect self-driving cars to become commonplace in the next decade - researchers, city planners and engineers are contemplating how city spaces could change if our cars start doing the driving for us.

    There are risks, of course: People might be more open to a longer daily commute, leading to even more urban sprawl.

    That city of the future could have narrower streets, because parking spots would no longer be necessary. And the air would be cleaner because people would drive less.

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 per cent of driving in business districts is spent on hunting for a parking spot.

    "What automation is going to allow is repurposing, both of spaces in cities and of the car itself," said Dr Ryan Calo, an assistant professor who specialises in robotics and drones at the University of Washington School of Law.

    Of course, getting to a utopian city will take a little longer than circling the block looking for a spot. A spokesman for Audi said a fully-automated car would not be available until the end of the decade.

    And the regulatory issues to be addressed before much of this could come true are, to put it mildly, forbidding.

    But, to some, this promise - or overpromise, as the case may be - sounds familiar.

    "The future city is not going to be a congestion-free environment. That same prediction was made that cars would free cities from the congestion of horses on the street," said Dr Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and a member of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford.

    Dr Smith has an alternative vision of the impact of automated cars, which he believes are inevitable.

    Never mind that nice city centre, he said that driverless cars will allow people to live farther from their offices and that the car could become an extension of home.

    "I could sleep in my driverless car, or have an exercise bike in the back of the car to work out on the way to work," he said.

    "My time spent in my car will essentially be very different."