The driverless car drumbeats grows louder. Google is working on a prototype. Engineers at Oxford have built an inexpensive kit that converts your standard Ford into an automated future-mobile. Hard as it may be to believe, one of the more fantastically far-out features of the science-fiction future could be here before the decade is over.
The rise of driverless cars raises a number of questions. Are they legal on our streets? A lengthy report out of Stanford last year concluded that they "probably are." Who's culpable when a driverless car gets into an accident? Last month Leon Neyfakh examined the thicket of legal and ethical issues that question raises. What about our cities, how will they change once we no longer have to steer ourselves through morning gridlock?
A thought-provoking recent post suggests a couple answers to that last question, each of which holds opposing implications for the future urban form. Writing on the website CityMinded, graduate student Issi Romem predicts that driverless cars will increase sprawl because they'll reduce travel times into city centers, while simultaneously leading to denser development by making it easier to build parking lots in satellite locations.
Regarding travel time, Romem lists a number of reasons why driverless cars will hasten commutes: They'll be better than human beings at picking optimal routes that take into account real-time traffic conditions; they'll be able to drive more safely at higher speeds than heavy-lidded morning commuters can; and they'll more efficiently interact with other cars at merges and intersections than the current cohort of box-blocking human drivers. This will reduce travel times, making it more feasible for urban workers to pursue their exurban dreams.
At the same time, Romem predicts that driverless cars will lead to the "uncoupling of buildings and parking." Today we vie with other drivers for a spot out front; but when driverless cars rule the roads, we'll get dropped off at work and picked up at the end of the day while our robot cars spend the intervening hours chirping at each other in some distant parking lot. Suburban shopping malls and office parks may be among the first areas transformed as a result. Romem predicts that the acres of black-topped parking lots that thin suburban commercial districts will give way to the first major increase in dense, walkable development since before World War II.
Image of Google's self-driving car via Wikimedia Commons.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.