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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 28, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    Self-driving cars and the metropolis of the future

    Davin O'Dwyer

    Passing a driving test is a memorable rite of passage for most people, but when Google received its driving permit in Nevada early in May, it was a turning point that might have considerably greater implications for the future of our species – and not just in terms of transport.

    Google, of course, has been developing autonomous self-driving cars for a few years now, customising a small fleet of vehicles with sensors and cameras and all sorts of computer modelling equipment. There can be no doubt at this stage, self-driving cars are the future of the automobiles, and the only question left is the timescale of their mainstream adoption – think decades rather than years.

    But the effects of autonomously driven cars go beyond being able to text behind the wheel, as some thought-provoking discussions have lately highlighted – the very fabric of our urban spaces will gradually be transformed with the rise of self-driving vehicles.

    Slate’s Matt Yglesias made some interesting points about how the whole model of car ownership is likely to change, for a start – they will be more akin to automated taxis than robotic possessions. And that will have massive implications for the provision of car parking spaces:

    “By contrast, right now every metropolitan area in the United States contains many, many more parking spaces than automobiles. When you’re at work, the space allocated for your vehicle at home sits there empty. When you’re at home, the space allocated for your vehicle at the office sits empty. Malls build parking to accommodate demand during peak hours, and the spaces mostly sit empty off-peak. But if the cars could drive around without a human pilot, there’d be no need for such lavish supplies of vehicle storage…After exploding for about 60 years, the torrent of parking construction is going to halt very suddenly and then start shifting into reverse.”

    And the decline of parking will be just the beginning of the transformative effects self-driving cars might have on urban design. Yglesias’ comments prompted Timothy B Lee at Forbes to speculate on other potential effects. He suggests such as greater housing density around suburban transit stations, higher road density as most self-driving cars won’t need to be as big as most current automobiles, and the complete reinvention of public transport, with self-driving vans replacing buses and potentially light rail services. However, Lee suggests that the impact will be unevenly distributed, with different effects on small and large cities:

    “In smaller metro areas, self-driving cars will likely make recently-built light rail systems look even more like white elephants, as the falling cost of taxi service and the reduction in congestion causes many rail customers to switch to them…On the other hand, in larger metro areas the emergence of affordable taxi service may actually increase subway ridership, as more suburban residents take a taxi to their local subway stop and ride to work in the central business district. Indeed, the greater efficiency of self-driving transportation has the potential to dramatically increase the size and density of our largest cities.”

    Given the low-density sprawl that typifies Dublin and, to a degree, other Irish cities, and the high reliance on individual vehicles among commuters, it’s an interesting exercise to speculate on what effect self-driving cars will have here. The size of Dublin’s commuter belt and the concentration of so many vehicles on our roads at rush hour means that self-driving cars are unlikely to efficiently act as a fleet of automated taxis, but the glaring inadequacies of our transport system will undoubtedly be improved by the advance of this technology. How it will change the face of our urban spaces is, at the very least, fun to think about.

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