A Car Full Of People With No One Driving

Ever since the days of the horse and buggy there has been a fundamental relationship between vehicle and driver. The advent of driverless cars will invert this dynamic as we all roll forward into the future. What should cities do now to prepare?

Because of the popularity of application-based, on-demand vehicle services, we have some foreshadowing of what may arise. Right now the quick and increasingly common answer to how to get to a meeting on the other side of the city is open up an app and call for a car. Not long ago, taxis were the only game in town.

Let’s imagine what cities can do to prepare for a future where this model is even more pervasive and available. It only stands to reason that if ridesharing companies transition to driverless fleets, and bring costs down and service reliability up, there is great potential for growth in this coming-soon-to-a-city-near-you arena.

Networked driverless cars could be a game changer for cities In the very near future. These types of technological innovations will not only continue to disrupt traditional approaches, but will catapult innovation in personal travel forward at an accelerated pace. As we start to see self-driving cars more widely on the streets in the next 5 to 15 years, this once seemingly futuristic concept will soon become reality.

The news from both Uber and Google surrounding the pursuit of driverless ridesharing presents great potential opportunities. Google has already put forth a 2020 timeframe for self-driving vehicles on the street, while Cisco’s technology trend watchers have said that by around that time it will cost more to drive our own cars than to allow them to ferry us about.

Tied together with demographic shifts and generational preferences, the nature of transportation and mobility is shifting in cities. People are driving less and getting driver’s licenses at a lower rate, as they choose mobility alternatives over the traditional dream of owning cars. Transit system usage is up — hitting the highest levels measured in 58 years — all while cities are adding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure at a rapid pace.

Clearly all of these trends point toward people wanting different ways, beyond personal cars, to get around. The ultimate goal must therefore be to combine these different transit modes into a coherent whole, with burgeoning private-sector transportation initiatives, so that getting around cities is ever easier, equitable and enjoyable.

Furthermore, when you marry these trends with the current state of how ridesharing is playing out it leads to some interesting potential outcomes.

Through research and interviews with city leaders on the current state of play with ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, we found that cities are generally supportive. Although there is no one-size-fits-all policy that every place can or should apply, 66 percent of cities support ridesharing growth in their communities, and best practices are arising.

One of the unique and innovative aspects of cities is the ability to experiment and develop locally driven solutions to new challenges. This leads to the question of how we will transition from our current era of the on-demand sharing economy to the one ahead of us. And, it also leads to some very real policy questions that city leaders are beginning to examine now.

How driverless vehicles are ultimately used — as either single occupancy or fully utilized carpooling machines — will weigh heavily on their ultimate utility to places and their overall environmental footprint. Supportive policy choices by government leaders can help us move in this direction. Shared driverless cars could lead to improved outcomes because of less intensive use of individual vehicles and greatly reduced traffic.

By combining these vehicles with sensor networks, data will drive transportation decision making like never before. This overall enhanced access to data, from both public and private sources, is essential to making better current and future transportation choices in cities.

The future decisions companies pursue will also make a big difference. UberPool and LyftLine are positive developments from the current generation of transportation network companies that should be enhanced and expanded.

Right now they are only in a handful of cities, but more extensive roll-outs nationwide would accord quite well with city planning and environmental goals. These services are certainly popular, as can be seen with usage in a city like San Francisco, so just imagine what could be gained on a national scale.

Although the future is anything but settled, there is great promise with on-demand autonomous vehicles.

Culturally, we are moving in a direction where shared driverless vehicles would fit in well, with millennials showing enhanced preferences for sharing over ownership. The smartphone has provided the platform for this shift, and the current generation of sharing-economy companies has been quick to capitalize and enhance this direction. Building upon this headwind as we move into the future will be a key component to how we all get around.

We are exploring these issues around technology and mobility at the National League of Cities through a new research project launching later this summer. Long-range decision making in cities is necessary for success. To help city leaders prepare for what’s next, it is imperative to help paint a picture of what the city of the future could look like.

Although the future is anything but settled, there is great promise with on-demand autonomous vehicles. Getting networked driverless cars right is incredibly important to how this all plays out on the ground in cities. When I gaze out my window in 2025 and see driverless vehicles rolling down the avenue, I want to see them full of people, even if there is no one behind the wheel.