Autonomous vehicles to transform cities, or make them gridlocked?

Published: November 6, 2015

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones

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Cities not planned around available parking spaces and more open and even green spaces are just some of the things to expect when autonomous vehicles become the main type of car on the road. That’s according to a group of Canadian architects and town planners.

The group was speaking at “Driverless City” where a panel on Tuesday was held by the Urban Land Institute of Toronto. One of the chief subjects on the agenda was how autonomous and increasingly green vehicles will change the way we live our lives and how we plan our urban spaces. The group was particularly eager to discuss how the advent of this type of vehicle will help to eliminate large parking lots.

Self-driving vehicles are still in development, but they are deep into testing phases and most companies with a foothold in the technology say their first vehicles could be available to consumers by 2017. At that stage they will be limited autonomous vehicles, but it is widely believed that full autonomy is possible within the next decade.

With growing technology on the roads, town planners may be able to rethink the way in which they design urban centers. For example, at the moment, drivers need to have quick access to their cars, which means they need to be parked and stored nearby. The result is many cities and towns planned around parking lots and garages, with spaces limited in most metropolitan areas.

With autonomous vehicles that do not need a human occupant, cars can be stored in one giant centralized location, or even somewhere outside the city. For example, the occupant can be driven to work and then the car leaves to the single location. When the occupant needs the car, it can be summoned beforehand and arrive to pick up the owner.

“We can now design buildings with zero parking,” he said.

“We can start to think of very different ways of doing things and it’s going to hugely affect the design process.”

Of course, there are challenges to this model. Chief among them will be what happens at times like rush hour, when hundreds or thousands of workers are all summoning their vehicles at the same time. Overcoming a gridlock that is probably like nothing seen before is the major hurdle planners will face.

“I fear to imagine what we're going to turn drop-offs and pickups (into),” Gomez-Palacio said.

“All of a sudden, every office building at 5 o'clock is going to look like a school zone.”