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Driverless Cars and the Disruptions They Will Bring

In planning for an autonomous-vehicle future, governments need to pay attention to the broader picture.

It's easy to understand why the media is fascinated with autonomous vehicles. Scarcely a day goes by without another company's announcement of new driverless technology. The latest is Apple, which just received permission from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on the state's roadways. This brings the tally to 30 companies, not only the likes of Google and Tesla but also a long list of traditional automakers including BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Volkswagen and Subaru.

However intriguing driverless cars may be conceptually, their integration into our transportation system will demand well-informed and insightful planning. In response to this challenge, the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis last year launched its 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative to explore the impacts and synergies of vehicle automation along with two other disruptive technologies -- electrification and vehicle sharing.

The initiative's framing document lays out two possible future scenarios. In the first, in which the three emerging technologies are pursued in concert, "people have plentiful, accessible and affordable mobility options." We devote less precious space to parking; our air is cleaner and our communities are more livable. In the second scenario, governments allow carmakers to rush gasoline-powered autonomous vehicles to market. Only the rich can afford them, and sprawl, traffic congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions worsen.

Government planners will find Information generated from initiatives like this one critical. But there are signs that the private sector isn't likely to wait for government to exert its influence. Developers are already building what could be called "adaptable infrastructure."

A case in point that is unfolding in Los Angeles, the nation's car capital, is described in a recent Los Angeles Times article. AvalonBay Communities Inc., one of the country's biggest developers, is designing a downtown residential complex for a future time when ride-sharing services and driverless cars whittle down car ownership and parking places become "expendable." Rather than building the traditional inclined floor garage, its level floors could be converted to "shops, a gym and a theater." The company also has been expanding the number of electric car charging stations in apartment complexes under construction and featuring prominent drop-off points for ride sharing.

The future that AvalonBay is anticipating doesn't seem to be too much of a gamble. Andy Cohen, co-chief executive of the global architecture firm Gensler, predicts that car ownership will peak around 2020 and then start to decline. "Our world is going to change radically and we are going to be alive to see it," Cohen told the Times. "It's not a generation away, it's 10 years away." According to the company, there now are about 500 million parking spaces in the United States, serving a population of nearly 326 million. This parking infrastructure covers an estimated 3,590 square miles, larger than the land area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

In an entirely different area of the transportation world, autonomous vehicles may offer a surprising solution to seemingly intractable traffic-congestion problems. Right now, for example, banning tractor trailer trucks from daytime use on highways would be a nightmare to implement for a variety of driver-related labor issues. But autonomous long-distance trucking, with freight loading and unloading done during the day and driverless transport at night, could mitigate these concerns. Governments in gridlocked regions might see great benefits from such a time-shifting use of existing infrastructure.

As these examples highlight, the successful integration of autonomous vehicles into our transportation system will depend on the alignment of a multitude of factors. Understanding its infrastructure impact, both good and bad, is certainly vital, but there are also social challenges that governments shouldn't overlook. According to a recent McKinsey report on shared mobility, for example, roughly 45 percent of the cost of operating an e-hailing car can be eliminated by autonomous vehicles. It's no surprise that companies are eager to get driverless vehicles on the road. But drivers for Uber and Lyft -- not to mention all those tractor-trailer drivers -- can be forgiven if they're not thrilled at the prospect.

Companies are responsible only to their stockholders and the bottom line. Governments have a broader responsibility to their communities, so they need to keep the larger picture in mind. Vehicle automation, while bringing many potential benefits, will drive economic and social disruption. Civic and government leaders will need to discuss, debate and hammer out the policies, planning and regulations -- the soft infrastructure -- that will govern the technology's use. Otherwise, they'll be jumping on the vehicle-automation bandwagon without first deciding where it should be going -- an unfortunate, yet fitting, analogy to a driverless car.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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