Will We Ever See Driverless Cars in Our Cities?

Cities are going carless

Key Takeaways

  • GM/Honda is testing the driverless Cruise in San Francisco.
  • In Europe and the US, cities are slowly banning cars.
  • Self-driving tech is better suited to transporting goods and public transit.
A fleet of GM/Honda's Cruise driverless cars

Self-driving cars were supposed to be the saviors of our cities by reducing traffic and cutting distracted drivers out of the whole two-tons-of-metal-hurtling-past-soft-humans equation. But where are they? And will they even make it into cities before cars are banned altogether?

Driverless vehicles promise safer, slower streets, but private driverless cars are still far from widespread. Meanwhile, cities like Paris and Barcelona are closing city streets to cars, and turning them back over to the residents. Even New York has repurposed on-street parking spaces for use as outdoor restaurant seating during COVID. There’s a momentum, and it’s pushing cars out of cities. Will the likes of the new driverless Cruise, from GM and Honda, be too late?

"An advantage of [autonomous vehicles] is that they can optimize the location of day parking, relieving downtown land for other uses," writes Roman Zakharenko in the study Self-Driving Cars Will Change Cities. "They also reduce the per-kilometer cost of the commute."

Cars Have No Place in Cities

Private vehicles are just about the worst thing in the modern city. They’re noisy, they pollute the air, and of course they kill people in collisions. They also take up a huge amount of space. Between parking and the roads themselves, cars use 50-60 percent of downtown land. And ironically, supposedly car-friendly practices make it worse. Cheap parking, for instance, makes parking harder to find and adds to traffic because drivers cruise around trying to find a cheap space.

What about electric cars? Those solve the emissions problem, but nothing else. Silent-running electric cars must generate noise to plough pedestrians from their path, instead of making drivers slow down in urban areas, or limiting the speed of electric cars to the speed limit. Cars, and their drivers, have a huge sense of entitlement, and it won’t stop until cars are gone.

Of course you can’t wipe cars out immediately. Not without investing in great public transport. Delivery vehicles are also necessary, but London plans to turn the entire delivery industry electric, which is one way to fix it. 

The tide is finally turning against cars, though. Drivers don’t like it, but tough. Why should they get well-maintained roads, and free on-street residential parking, when everyone else has to pay for their subway and metro tickets? It makes little sense. The good news is that even closing major city roads doesn’t worsen traffic. With good alternatives available, the traffic just disappears.

Do Self-Driving Cars Have Any Use?

Driverless cars are useful, but not as private vehicles, and not in cities. Instead of trying to come up with convenience features like Tesla’s Autopilot, which will probably never be able to deal with the complexities of downtown traffic, we should look outside cities.

70 percent of cargo moved around the US is carried in trucks, and highways are much better suited to self-driving vehicles than city streets. Highways are easier to map, have less going on, and have fewer pedestrians. Highways also make up only 5 percent of roads in the US, and human-driven trucks also cause 9.5 percent of highways fatalities, while only covering 5.6 percent of highway miles. In short, that’s a perfect place to go driverless.

Or how about self-driving buses, like the smart shuttle in Columbus, Ohio? These bridge the gaps left in many US transit systems, getting people from their homes to transit hubs. 

It’s hard to say if self-driving cars will arrive at all, if cities will kick out cars, or if we’ll see some combination of the two. But the slow ban of cars has momentum on its side, and it’s also essential to combating climate change and good old-fashioned bad air quality. In the end, it might not be a bad idea to bet against cars.

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