Autonomous (driverless) cars are already on the road. As of August 2012, Google test vehicles had logged over 300,000 accident-free miles. Intel and Google leaders predict that these cars will be available to the general public in the next five to ten years.
While it will likely take several decades to convert our fleet of several hundred million meatmobiles to driverless units, the impact on the landscape will be just as dramatic as the rise of the automobile itself. Parking will not be as great an issue because your car won’t need to stay with you. It can drop you off downtown and go park itself somewhere else. Likewise, you won’t need to keep your car at your house. Future housing developments will probably have a centralized parking area. Your car will come to your house when you need it.
Commuting will be less expensive and more enjoyable. It will be less expensive because it will no longer be necessary to cocoon ourselves in two tons of steel and plastic to protect against human error. It will be more enjoyable because you will be able to knit, read, play the guitar, or do whatever else you want to do while your ‘car’ gets you where you want to be. These factors are likely to make longer commutes more acceptable, potentially leading to increased sprawl and higher land prices in rural areas.
Autonomous vehicles also call into question huge transportation projects oriented around cars. For example, the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project is intended to address six primary problems: crashes, congestion, freight immobility, limited transit options, poor bicycle and pedestrian connections, and earthquake risk. The first three of these problems will probably be solved by autonomous vehicles. Human error accounts for more than 90% of vehicle crashes. Autonomous vehicles will be able to coordinate their movements with other vehicles, thus allowing tighter spacing between vehicles and a more efficient use of road space. Vehicles designed to haul freight will be able to take advantage of the reduced congestion and can also be programmed to haul when other vehicles are not on the road. The availability of driverless vehicles may also help with the fourth problem that the CRC hopes to address: limited transit options. Driverless vehicles may reduce the need for such options. People who are currently unable to drive because of physical limitations, for example, will no longer be reliant on public transportation. Driverless vehicles won’t help with bicycle and pedestrian connections or earthquake risk, but the CRC project would probably look very different if those were the only problems to be addressed.
Driverless cars are going to be available on the same general planning horizons as large transportation projects and county comprehensive planning. It is entirely possible that the first vehicle across the new bridge will be piloted by a computer. We need to seriously consider the impact that autonomous vehicles will have on the landscape and try to plan accordingly.