Making the shift: An autonomous vehicle future requires bigger thinking

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However, the truth is that most cities are not thinking about autonomous cars at all. A recent survey yielded that only four of the United States’ largest 68 cities are considering driverless technologies in their transportation planning.

For its part, Vancouver City Council recently considered a report that presented two of the major consensus views about the future of autonomous vehicles in cities. 

In one camp, proponents of autonomous vehicles cite a utopian future where everyone—seniors and people with disabilities included—enjoy convenient, safe, and cost-effective mobility, without the burdens of private car ownership. 

The economics of shared and driverless vehicles make fossil fuel combustion uneconomic; why wouldn’t a fleet operator choose electricity over petroleum? If the suburbs aren’t going anywhere, then electric and autonomous vehicles are the ticket to completely renewable transportation. 

As cars efficiently hug each others’ bumpers in “platoon driving formation” in segregated autonomous car superhighways, the streets, including most parking, are reclaimed for more human uses such as treed boulevards, bike lanes, and playgrounds. Free from the burdens of bumper to bumper traffic, goods and freight movement are unlocked, providing economic benefits for everyone.

The critical camp view autonomous vehicles as the ultimate suburban subsidy. Smart and efficient computer driving is a double-edged sword. The backside of the blade is that the time and expense penalties of commuting to work over long distances are removed; It’s transportation economics 101.

Why live downtown if the suburbs offer cheap land, housing, and travel? No waiting at stoplights or circling city blocks looking for parking. Why take the bus when a roving autonomous taxi can be outside of your door in mere minutes? You can even nap or perfect your double Windsor Knot en route. The critical camp’s view is that autonomous cars will promote urban sprawl, chewing through land and resources.

So how will municipalities, including those in Metro Vancouver, respond to this groundswell of new personal mobility? The advice coming from Bloomberg is that there is a narrow window of time to shape the future of driverless cars. 

With an eye to the mid-20th century takeover of city streets by automobiles, Peter D. Norton writes in Fighting Traffic, “There is a naive view that autonomous vehicles are in themselves beneficial. They can be beneficial only if we deliberately make them so.” This view is also reflected in a recent Greenest City Scholar report, recently submitted to the City of Vancouver. 

The report lays out some ground rules for dealing with autonomous vehicles and capturing local benefits: Autonomous vehicles need to complement active transportation, not the other way around. Walking and cycling need to be the easiest and most convenient way to travel. Plan for a zero-emissions transportation future and continue to build compact communities that support active and healthy transportation.

The economic and environmental upside of autonomous vehicles done well are tremendous. But cities would be wise to keep people at the centre of the urban and transportation planning.

Keane Gruending is the Communications Manager for the SFU Centre for Dialogue’s Renewable Cities program 

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