How Many American Cities Are Preparing For The Arrival of Self-Driving Cars? Not Many.

Comment

Image Credits:

Only about 6 percent of the country’s biggest cities are planning for or thinking about autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars in their long-range transportation plans, according to the National League of Cities.

What’s even more surprising is that only 3 percent of these cities’ transit plans are even taking into account the impact of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft even though they already operate in 60 of the 68 largest markets in the U.S. That’s according to a content analysis of transportation planning documents from the country’s 50 most populous cities.

Change is coming fast. Seven auto manufacturers and technology companies including Cadillac, Tesla, Google, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan have said they expect to bring driverless cars to market by 2020.

This mismatch is kind of a big deal because the key driver in whether autonomous vehicles will lead to a neo-dystopian repeat of the mid-20th century policies that fueled sprawl and isolated living in neighborhoods with little walkability or not is — land-use policy.

If you look at the chart below, that is the difference between a pre-automobile designed neighborhood and a post-automobile designed neighborhood. It’s much easier to take the density up on a grid layout than it is on a suburban street structure, where there are lots of curvilinear streets and cul de sacs. Once all those street forms and lot sizes are set in place, they’re almost impossible to change because most of the parcels are owned privately.

The concern is that if suburban governments shirk at designing better, more compact physical space, the additional efficiencies and comforts of self-driving cars will just induce longer mega-commutes and more sprawl, which is bad for the environment.

cars-post-cars

Lots of peninsula and Silicon Valley suburbs oppose more housing construction because they are rightfully concerned about more traffic congestion; they may not have the right street and parcel structure to handle more population and employment growth at the moment.

But autonomous vehicles and fleets of on-demand transportation services could change some of that. For example, it could liberate the 25 percent of physical space in downtown San Francisco that is currently devoted to on-street parking. Or it could open up garage spaces in urban areas to ground-floor retail or additional housing units. An OECD study using commuter data from Lisbon argued that the city could offer the same level of mobility with 10 percent of the vehicles if it used Robo-taxis.

I’ve been on a few panels in the last couple of weeks with representatives from companies like Lyft, Uber, Google and some major public transit agencies in cities like Dallas.

In one panel for the American Public Transit Association last month, I tried to ask everyone whether self-driving cars favored density or sprawl. No one could really say.

That’s because a huge part of the question is up to urban and suburban governments in how they craft policy around physical environments. On Friday, at the National League of Cities conference in Nashville, Gabe Klein, a former Zipcar executive who was a transit director under both mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and former mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington D.C., told me that cities should actually stop adding extra highway lanes and parking lots today.

Klein said that cities shouldn’t just passively accept technology for technology’s sake, but instead build the ideal urban environment that they want driverless cars to fit into.

There are lots of interesting design questions to ask:

  • Will self-driving cars be individually-owned or fleet-run? Several Silicon Valley companies lean toward a fleet-run future as Uber and Lyft have made it very clear that they either want to reduce or end car ownership outright. It is unclear how Google or Apple — another suspected entrant — plan to sell or distribute cars. Tesla sells to the individuals at the higher-end and is moving down market. German auto manufacturer Mercedes Benz seems to be hedging; its research and development unit in Silicon Valley is running a pilot fleet called Boost for shuttling children from activity to activity.
  • Would a fleet-run model lend itself to a monopoly or duopoly, with all of the pricing and regulatory issues that would inevitably raise?
    • If we go toward a fleet-run future, how should curbside design be changed if cities expect heavier pick-up and drop-off activity, but a lot less demand for parking?
  • Should there be special lanes for autonomous vehicles?
  • If consumers keep shifting to electric vehicles or fleets of autonomous vehicles, that will reduce both parking fee and gas tax revenue. If so, how should tax and revenue sources for road maintenance evolve?
  • If driverless car technology becomes something of a utility, how do cities promote equity and access for lower-income residents? Do they rely on on a voucher system to cover the difference for market-rate fares for lower-income commuters or organize municipally-run fleets? Lyft’s director of transportation policy Emily Castor told me on Friday that the company would be very open to voucher programs that would subsidize fares that would otherwise be unprofitable, although they have yet to work out a pilot.

Then one of the very biggest questions is — will driverless cars cause the public to disinvest in mass transit? A lot of folks from journalists to transit policy makers have raised this concern. In Florida, a state senator Jeff Brandes, is opposing investments in light rail because driverless cars will come online by the time the project is finished. It’s concerning because no one actually knows how much efficiency self-driving cars can really provide. It could be a repeat of the 1940s when streetcar lines in U.S. cities like Los Angeles were dismantled to make way for cars and buses.

On the tech company side, the story varies considerably. It really depends on the company you’re talking about. Lyft, for example, launched a program last week called “Friends With Transit” that advocates partnerships with public transit agencies so that riders can use Lyft in conjunction with fixed-line transit. The company sees ride-hailing and public transit working in tandem and is a big advocate of more spending on public transit. The thinking is that the public sector can handle the multi-billion dollar infrastructural and fixed-line investments in rail lines and subways that the private sector will never be able to do, while ride-pooling and on-demand rides fills in gaps and handles last-mile problems.

I do not know all the answers to these questions, nor do any of the companies, cities or the federal government. There are too many moving parts from the pace of technological advancement to land-use policy to individual consumer behavior.

But the point is we should start debating all these questions now.

More TechCrunch

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender Solo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient, and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

OpenAI is removing one of the voices used by ChatGPT after users found that it sounded similar to Scarlett Johansson, the company announced on Monday. The voice, called Sky, is…

OpenAI to remove ChatGPT’s Scarlett Johansson-like voice

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets