Parking and Urban Planning with Autonomous Cars

Recent stories about parking problems at Telsa HQ in WSJ (paywalled) and The Economist (article) got me thinking a lot about changing needs for cities. It already seems obvious that one autonomous car could take the place of the three cars I know own. Possibly I could have no car at all and subscribe to a car pooling service. In any case, there will be fewer cars and less traffic with automated controls.

Until I read the article in the Economist, however, I had not fully thought through how this would change parking. Yes, I could reclaim more of my yard from driveway, but office parking lots and city street parking would no longer be necessary; at least downtown.

A car can drop you off and then travel a distance a way in a remote parking lot until needed, or simply go to move another passenger. This would mean one to two more lanes in big cities which could be reclaimed for bike lanes, walking, or more throughput. Think about the overhead view of cities and how much asphalt is dedicated to parking vehicles.

Dude, where’s my car?

At the arena where I work, it seems we might only need half the number of parking spaces, allowing for other facilities to be built. For sure, the traffic flow would need to change to allow more traffic around drop off and pickup areas.

Telsa’s overcrowding issue could go away because the cars could drop off and then go park at some property down the road if they have no other tasks after they pick up or drop off your laundry.

New laws will be needed for sure, to prevent hordes of cars from endlessly circling to avoid paying for parking. I have no idea what that will look like.

I’m pretty excited about what that future looks like. In some cases it will just mean more buildings can be built, but there is a great opportunity to reclaim that space for parks or other public use. Nothing could make me happier, however, than an end to the tyranny of those idiotic self service parking kiosks. I swear, the interfaces for those things are proof that evil exists.

A city with autonomous cars would need fewer traffic lights and likely only for pedestrians or bicyclists. What other things would change in this world?

The downside to all this of course is revenue to cities and businesses that charge for parking and a tremendous amount of jobs in jeopardy. Taxi/Uber driver (or even pilot not too long after) is probably not a growth opportunity, along with bus driver or parking attendant/valet. The parking revenue is likely reclaimed by additional construction on the open land. The jobs will require opportunities to retrain. As computers get smart enough, any repetitive job is in jeopardy.

There can be only one

One guarantee is that there will be attrition in the auto industry. Autonomous cars will quickly overtake sales of conventional cars by lowering the overall cost in number of cars needed and cheaper insurance (safety). Initially the sales will be decent with high income earners wanting to read email on the way to work, but as families or neighborhoods see the benefits of pooling cars, the number of cars needed will drop lowering the overall cost to families.

Down the road (metaphor intended), this means there will be too many manufacturers. It is too early to predict who the winners will be, although I think that is likely to be Google, Intel, and Nvidia over any auto company. Telsa is a leader in thinking, to be sure, but as the breakthroughs happen in battery technology and computer intelligence, the larger manufacturers can easily flood the market and out produce them.

I think in ten years we will look back and wonder how we lived without it and within fifteen years it will be illegal to drive manually in the cities for traffic management. What other things this will impact remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful it means less concrete and asphalt and room for a few more trees.

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