The Automated City Future

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Autonomous vehicle talk is everywhere! We are aware of Google’s work in the field, but now leading automakers, as well as Uber, are working on this technology. Some professionals are saying the world will change in just 5 years from now as driverless vehicles take to our city streets. Others say it will never happen. Looking way down the road, this is not about autonomous vehicles, but rather about automated ones. And it’s not only about the future of transportation we will be creating, but the wholesale redesign of our cities, which is no small feat.
 
I’ve heard that even Larry Page of Google doesn’t know how to pull off this massive technical challenge. The social and political challenges could be equally daunting because creating the ultimate efficient automated mobility system will require most all drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and give up their private cars for good.
 
Industry has devised a four-level system to rank the upcoming autonomous vehicle future. Levels 1-2 focus on nearer-term connected vehicle technologies. Level 3 semi-autonomous systems will reach the market soon. Buyers will be able to enjoy a freeway autonomous experience in a car from Cadillac, Mercedes, Tesla, Audi, Nissan or other manufacturers. Level 3 systems are only the tip of the iceberg.
 
Google has been focused on the (Level 4) driverless car; essentially a robo-Uber car that you don’t own, just pay by the ride. Or we can think of it like a shared car that drives to your driveway for you to micro-rent. There is a lot to say about this Level 4 autonomous car future. We can consider the many new applications, new business opportunities, how it is poised to improve our cities, as well as the potential problems. Yes, we could actually see more cars in our cities, and urban sprawl get worse by eliminating the consumer’s drive time.
 
There will certainly be benefits when autonomous vehicles reach 5% penetration in our cities. To really exploit the larger efficiency gains of this technology they will need to operate in an exclusive travel corridor. Think of it like an elevator shaft in a tall office building. Nothing can be in that elevator shaft other than what belongs. Having a bunch of autonomous vehicles going down a street but held up in speed by old-world analog driver-controlled cars limits the larger opportunity of these advanced mobility systems.
So a city full of autonomous vehicles communicating with each other is really an automated vehicle system. The car no longer operates alone.
 
These deep future automated systems will move us faster than we can imagine today.  The precision of automation can bring vehicles running in opposing directions within a few inches of each other. I expect high-speed travel to be potentially scary for the passengers, and expect windows to go opaque when the user’s vehicle is passing other vehicles. The trip from downtown Detroit to Chicago might only take an hour if the proper mega-regional mobility system has been created. And I doubt all of these upcoming systems will be exclusively based on the ground.
 
There will be a wholesale change in vehicle design. All of the amazing knowledge in crashworthiness is no longer needed. Empty system vehicles might use fabric or other materials allowing them to fold flat for travel without any passengers or cargo. Some creative designers are now imagining these future vehicle systems to be more like rooms than cars as we know them today, and perhaps when they’re not being used for transportation, they could be used for shelter.

Check out IDEO’s concept for Automobility. Their 3rd version is relevant to this discussion. 
 
Former GM Vice-President Larry Burns estimated 85% of a city’s current transportation infrastructure can be re-purposed in this future. Think of that! As this future of mobility evolves toward the future of living, one could estimate this future will be a massive boom for real estate players. 


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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years.  He trained as a car designer, worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.