Photo Credit: David Wasserman, San Jose office

Autonomous Vehicles

Cars will soon be able to avoid collisions, platoon at tight headways, carry people who are unable to drive, and drive robotically without anyone aboard. How will they affect the evolution of our cities, the way we plan and design our multimodal transport infrastructure, and provide mobility to all socio-economic groups?

How will autonomous vehicles affect travel behavior?

See the results of our latest AV research.

What is the potential of autonomous transit?

See our recent articles in UrbanLand – the Magazine of ULI and Public Square: A CNU Journal

View the articles.

Of the six levels of automation currently defined by SAE,

Levels 3-5 will be transformational to urban form and lifestyles.

5-20 Year Evolution of AVs

Although no fully autonomous vehicle is commercially available in the United States at this time, car makers expect to make them available between 2020 and 2030, and several are testing in urban settings in cooperation with Transportation Network Companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft. Google has been testing Level 4 vehicles for several years in road conditions throughout California. It is highly likely that a substantial portion of the fleet will be fully autonomous by 2035.

Relationship to Other Tech

Autonomous vehicles could be closely integrated with mobility applications in which an autonomous vehicle, rather than a car driven by a person is used as a type of automated taxi. There is also a high level of synergy between autonomous cars and electric vehicles.

Personal vehicle ownership is likely to give way to services provided by Transportation Network Companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft. Technology improvements will become widespread more quickly in TNC fleets, and our decisions on how and where the travel will become more spontaneous and unpredictable than our present commitment to set travel patterns based on our self-owned vehicles.

Pros and Cons of AVs

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly change travel behavior by reducing driver stress, eliminating/reducing accidents, and reducing congestion.

One of the primary benefits of autonomous vehicles is the reduction of driver stress, since the car would be able to drive itself for either some portion of the journey or the entire journey. One near-term technology that is already available is traffic jam assist, in which a person driving in stop and go traffic can allow the car to drive itself for short periods of time. This feature is likely to be highly desirable along congested freeways.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to also reduce or completely eliminate accidents. The root cause of many vehicular collisions are related to driver behavior such as speeding or inattentive driving. The combined package of sensors and collision avoidance systems would be a key factor in reducing collisions.

Another benefit is a potential decrease in congestion, primarily for two reasons. First, many of the non-recurring congestion on major roadways is attributable to collisions, which would be reduced based on the factors above. Secondly, autonomous cars have the potential to reduce the following distances and increase travel speeds, particularly on limited access facilities such as freeways, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and toll facilities.

A prominent disadvantage could be that AVs will increase the amount of traffic on most streets and highways. Lower-stress travel, ability to use travel time on other activities, pay-as-you-go pricing, freedom from parking searches, and the ability to travel by car for those presently too young, too old, or too disabled will all add to trip making and trip lengths and the number of vehicle miles traveled. Autonomous TNC services may also offer greater flexibility, comfort and predictability than public transit and greater range and comfort than cycling or walking, adding vehicle miles associated with travel mode changes.

Planners and engineers will need to rethink and possibly reshape our transportation networks and urban settings to accommodate the AV culture.

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