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« Uniting Healthcare and Community: What Healthcare Customers Crave | Main | Autonomous Vehicles Part I: The Future Is Here »

Autonomous Vehicles Part II: What Lies Ahead

CC image courtesy DimiTVP

In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles Part I: The Future Is Here, I discussed the exciting autonomous technology that already surrounds us. However, there’s still a lot we can expect down the road.

Everyone talks about the hurdles that impede the adoption of driverless cars—regulatory approval, insurance liability and technology that isn’t quite foolproof (yet). But deployment of personal self-driving vehicles also faces some other “speed bumps”:

  • Standardization – The US Department of Transportation adopted the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) standards that define six levels of autonomy—from Levels 0-2 (the driver monitors the driving environment) to Levels 3-5 (the vehicle monitors the driving environment). Most new cars qualify as Level 3 or 4. While Level 5 vehicles—completely driverless with no steering wheel or pedals—are on their way, no states currently allow such vehicles to operate on public roadways;
  • Reliability – Reliable autonomous technology may not quite be “there” yet, but it’s not far away. Auto component manufacturer Nvidia claims to be two years away from AI (artificial intelligence) systems equal to human cognition, without the associated distractions. Nvidia combines multiple sensors with learning software (like a Nest thermostat’s learning algorithm). Mobileye—manufacturer of vision-based advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS)—was acquired by Intel in March 2017, who plans to crowdsource data from millions of ADAS-equipped vehicles for real-time real-world data;
  • Insurability – Insurance companies may offer discounts for cars with Level 3 or 4 safety systems, but slow state adoption of Level 5 vehicle standards is hampering nationwide regulatory acceptance. That could change as technology improves and consumer demand increases; and,
  • Security – Autonomous vehicles must be cyber-secure. Level 4 and 5 vehicles will shortly have V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications, allowing them to “talk” to each other—useful where visibility is impaired, like a blind corner. But this also introduces the potential for viruses and malware. Imagine rush hour in a major city being hacked by a cyber-terrorist, directing tens of thousands of cars to accelerate uncontrollably. Cyber security is essential for full acceptance of self-driving vehicles.
The Law of Diffusion of Innovation

One of the biggest (and least technological) hurdles is market acceptance. AAA estimates there are approximately 300 million registered vehicles in the U.S. today, with an average age of around 11 years old. Improved quality and increasing sale prices has resulted longer ownership. In a good year, U.S. car and truck sales can reach 15 million so it could take 20 years (or more) to completely replace all currently-registered vehicles. But it is not necessary to reach 100 percent market saturation.

In 1962, sociology professor Dr. Everett Rogers published Diffusion of Innovations, describing how new ideas or products are adopted by the public. This theory has been used for over 50 years by trend-spotters such as Malcolm Gladwell and Simon Sinek.

Dr. Rogers described adoption as a Bell curve divided into five classes – Innovators (2.5 percent), Early Adopters (13.5 percent); Early Majority (34 percent); Late Majority (34 percent); and Laggards (16 percent). The Law of Diffusion of Innovation proposes that once Innovators and Early Adopters embrace an innovation (they combine for only 16 percent of the market), a “tipping point” is reached and much of the remaining majority quickly follows. (There is always a small percentage that fails to adopt any innovation).

Consider how fast the smartphone and Facebook were adopted. Once they passed their respective tipping points, widespread acceptance quickly followed. If adoption of self-driving cars follows a similar pattern, it would take 48 million autonomous vehicles to equal 16 percent of market share. And since some analysts predict 10 million self-driving cars on U.S. roads by 2020, 48 million could come faster than you might think.

How Will Autonomous Cars Be Deployed?

There’s no easy answer, but every day the public seems becomes more comfortable with autonomous technology. From IWAs to hotel concierge robots to auto-piloted aircraft, we rely on autonomous technology as part of our daily routine.

While not self-driving (yet), Uber recently announced the formation of the on-demand Uber Elevate service. Small piloted (for now) VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft will cruise the skies of major metropolitan areas. In April 2017, Dubai and Dallas (!) were announced as the first two cities for this service, proposed to begin in 2020.

Back on the ground, deployment of recent technology may provide a clue as to how driverless cars are integrated on our roads:

  • Express Lanes – When hybrids and plug-ins were new, some states encouraged their use by allowing them to use dedicated carpool (HOV) lanes or the free use of tolled express lanes (so-called “Lexus lanes”);
  • Tax Incentives – Federal tax credits previously encouraged sales of hybrids and low-emission vehicles; and
  • Dedicated Parking – Some parking lots and garages provide reserved spaces for hybrids or electric vehicle charging stations.

So how can new self-driving cars integrate into our fleet of mostly human-controlled vehicles?

  • Dedicated Self-Driving Lanes – Imagine dedicated “self-driving” lanes for Level 4 and 5 vehicles on designated highway. You might drive from your home or office to a designated on-ramp where you have the choice of driving yourself or using a dedicated “self-driving” lane. You enter the “self-driving” lane, which platoons autonomous vehicles in a high-speed cluster until your pre-determined exit, where you return to “standard mode” and drive back onto a local street;
  • Tax Credits – As with hybrids, tax credits might be offered to encourage public adoption (and to partially offset the vehicle’s purchase price);
  • Special Permits – As public acceptance grows, permits could be granted for various reasons. Medical permits (like disabled parking stickers) could give the blind or elderly new-found freedom. Other permits for shared-ride services, ambulances, delivery and commercial fleets are also potentials; and
  • Not-So-Mass Transit – Shared self-driving services could eventually replace today’s bus transit in certain markets. Think of it as “mass transit” on a neighborhood/customized level.

And what about parking? Until self-driving cars become truly “free range,” we’ll still need vehicle storage, but expect that to eventually decrease. That means a potential excess of parking spaces. How much?

Well, ask yourself this question: “How many parking spaces are in the US?” Surprisingly, there is no accurate count. Can’t Google Earth’s street-view cars collect this data? Since parking spaces are being constructed, removed, or relocated every day, it is a constantly moving target.

A frequently estimated number of US parking spaces is between 800 and 900 million. That’s around 10,500 square miles of parking (both surface lots and parking structures)—about the size of the state of Massachusetts! That’s a lot of parking, so if even a fraction of that supply is freed up, consider how many new opportunities will be available to cities, villages and suburbs alike.

Acres of current parking could be returned to green space or developed for new uses. Garages designed to be future-proofed can be revived as new buildings. On-street parking spaces might be reclaimed for pedestrians, cyclists or landscaped areas. The list is endless.

The introduction of the autonomous cars is just the beginning. As acceptance grows, as legal and insurance issues wane, and as technology inevitably improves, self-driving vehicles have the potential to positively disrupt our lives and remake our cities.

Now, about my flying car. . .

Joe Pobiner, FAICP, CNU-A, is a master planner and urban designer in Gensler's Dallas office. He specializes in applying responsible planning and urban design principles that strengthen the physical, natural, economic, and cultural frameworks of our rapidly urbanizing planet. Contact him at joe_pobiner@gensler.com.