The media is awash lately in stories and opinion pieces about driverless cars, or autonomous cars as they’re also called. Whether it’s Google’s experimentation in this area, or traditional car manufacturers, the idea sparks imaginations on all fronts.

How will they work? How do they intermingle with other cars? What will be their impact on car ownership?

All these are fascinating, but on this blog we focus on urbanity, and walking in particular. The question for today is, what will the impact be of driverless cars on our cities? How will it change how we use them, and how our places develop?


I’ve had a fun debate on this topic lately with some of my close friends. The thoughts run the gamut from the potentially positive impact to the disastrous. Stu Sirota, of TND Planning Group, thinks that driverless cars have the potential to ring in a new auto age, and thus a new round of suburban sprawl. I tend to think the opposite, since I can see how autonomous vehicles could make city life much more pleasant.

The cliché is true: only time will tell.

But it is fun to speculate. So, here’s my speculation.

First, I’d like to demonstrate that I have firm grasp of the obvious. It will be decades before the impact of fleets of driverless cars could even be known. Some serious technological hurdles still need to be overcome, especially when learning how to deal with those pesky humans that occupy our streets and sidewalks. Even if driverless cars are adopted en masse, we could be talking 20-50 years as a timeframe. And, it’s highly questionable if they would be embraced fully, given the diverse wants and needs of the buying public.

Setting that aside, for the sake of some fun futurism, I can see what seem to be a few obvious impacts of the technology on how we live:

  • If the technology is perfected so that the vehicles can co-exist with other traffic, they could very easily replace taxis as we know them today. Personally, I can’t wait for that. I use cabs regularly, and would greatly prefer a 21st century version of this service instead of the shady, often lousy service we have today in virtually every city.
  • For city dwellers, I could see how the vehicles would also take users away from public transportation. Now, there’s an important qualification here: it depends on cost. If fleets of driverless cars are roaming the cities and affordable, the discretionary user would very likely take that over a bus, and perhaps even a train (traffic permitting). But chances are this will be a more expensive service, so the transit-dependent population will be affected differently.
  • In walkable places, as more people use the technology, it would likely decrease the need for a large amount of off-street parking. Cars can be roaming around the city frequently, and also stored in more remote locations. That simply encourages more infill, and a more robust city life.
  • For those who choose auto-dependent places, the cars would also tend to make life better as well. Platooning the cars during rush hours can alleviate existing congestion to a degree. The presence of these vehicles would also likely decrease some of the other negatives, such as drunken driving problems, the need for parents to constantly be a chauffeur, etc.

In essence, I think this technology would likely improve the lifestyle choice of both the pro and anti-car crowds. I don’t see it as either a panacea, or a plague.

In truth, it’s hard for me to believe right now that this is much more than a futuristic fantasy. The concept has to overcome not just technological hurdles, but also our worldwide energy supply issues, climate change, and our own human nature that will have so many millions of people loathe to ever give up control of their vehicle to a machine. If my intuition is wrong, and it does become ubiquitous, look for it to displace technologies and systems that people find necessary, but undesirable.

But then, time will tell.

What do you think? What impact will autonomous vehicles have on our cities, towns and lifestyles?

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6 Responses to Driverless Cars: Good or Evil?

  1. Scott says:

    I’m with you, in the sense that such cars would most likely prove “geevil.” There would be positives, as urban behaviors adapted to (yet another) new technology and that would likely drive other interesting innovations. And given the timeline you spell out, I’m confident that American cities will have re-emerged and proven themselves as desirable places to live by then. So people won’t likely throw that away on a whim (again).

    However, a lot of this talk sounds very 50s-ish — automation swooping in and, with it, a glorious new leisure age with no consideration of the consequences, such as the working class jobs such innovations tend to replace.

  2. Mario says:

    The author has no idea about how fast this technology is moving. Still thinks it is science fiction. The same was said about that the publishing business and print press not going to be affected by the internet. What happen to Borders, Barnes and Noble, your local newspaper, your journalists, etc?
    Audi, Mercedes and most car companies are well advanced in this technology. Before 2017 we will have car features such as self parking and before 2019 we will have fully driveless cars.

  3. Kevin Klinkenberg says:

    Hi Mario,
    I actually have read industry reports, and have a good sense for the technology. Even those say it’s likely at least 20 years before these cars are on the roads in any real numbers. The consumption of goods and services is a far different facet of life than how we transport ourselves around, and what lifestyle we choose. Many more facets of human nature to consider.
    Thanks for reading,

  4. BiModal Glideway says:

    Has anyone heard or read about the BiModal Glideway? I think a program like the BiModal Glideway introduced into a program like Google could push the driverless future even closer than the 20-50 year time frame mentioned in this blog. I came across the BiModal Glideway on Facebook and thought it was a driverless car future worth looking into! You should check out the video of the BiModal Glideway on Facebook or Youtube. The BiModal Glideway is a great idea so take a look at it and leave a comment on what you think of the program!

  5. neil21 says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I was prompted to get some of my robotaxi thoughts down today, so thought I’d share them here too: I’m firmly in the optimist camp.

    Sprawl is a subsidised policy choice, not a natural result of technology (cheap oil, car loans). Similarly the recent urban renaissance isn’t about high oil prices, but about the rediscovery of the joys of compact walkability. People like living in places where they can walk to the store, where they can see other people. In surveys, Americans overwhelmingly say they want to live in this kind of ‘small town’ neighborhood.

    The barrier to more compact walkable neighborhoods is political. It is in our zoning codes and street design guidelines. Any attempt to change parking minima, or to complete streets, is met by howls from drivers. The key is undermine private vehicle ownership, so that fewer people immediately self-identify as drivers (even if they, for example, have a robotaxi subscription that takes them to work every morning, for the same price as a year’s worth of gas).

    E-robotaxis will be the catalyst to let aging boomer nimbies join with Gen Y, and provide the political support needed to retrofit 20th century sprawl into compact, mixed-use, walkable communities.

    Vancouver, BC, where I live, will be dead last in this, unfortunately, having just kicked out Uber thanks to our taxi oligopoly. Our bus-driver unions will ensure the potential frequency, and hence ridership, gains from robobuses also won’t be realised. I expect US states and countries outside ‘the West’ to be robotaxi users first.


  6. I. Panda says:

    Public transit only works efficiently if most people travel common routes at the same time. As it is often the case, the first and last-mile of one’s travel needs do not overlap with others’ needs, public transit comes up short. In many instances, routing between two desired locations by public transit is not very direct or time efficient. Robot cars could fill up that gap and, used in conjunction with car pooling, would nicely complement public transit.

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