Automated cars are coming sooner than expected, and they will change cities, if not the world. That was the biggest take-home message from the 10th annual winter meeting of the Mayor's Innovation Project in Washington, D.C., last weekend.
In his keynote address to the group of about 80 wonkish mayors, senior mayoral aides and urban policy nerds, Gabe Klein told the group that in the past few months Google had rethought its driverless car. (I founded MIP in 2005 with wonkish policy nerd UW-Madison Professor Joel Rogers.) Google had been developing the vehicle for sale to private individuals just like any other car. But now they realize that once a car can drive itself none of us will need to own one at all. They've changed their business model from selling automated cars to essentially integrating them into a massive car-sharing system.
This has big implications.For one thing it probably means that highway expansions will be unnecessary, as automated vehicles will make each highway mile eight times more efficient. That's because vehicles will be able to safely travel much more closely together at a higher speed, and they'll be able to anticipate and avoid pinch points and obstructions. Gaper's block at crashes will be a thing of the past.
It also means that parking can be dramatically reduced. What's likely to happen is that we'll subscribe to car-sharing services. When we need to go somewhere we'll order up a car on our smart phones, it'll arrive by itself to pick us up, drop us at our destination and then head off for its next customer. So, the need for parking will be dramatically reduced. This is good news for cities where parking lots and structures are ugly, dead, undervalued spaces. It's also a good option for consumers, for whom the average new car costs $31,000 and sits idle 95% of the time.
But it means that any state or community that has road expansions or parking structures in its capital program should slow down and think twice. A single parking stall can cost between $15,000 and $45,000, and bonds on these projects are usually paid back over 20 years. It seems increasingly unlikely that there will be the customers to pay back the loans.
At a trade show earlier this month in Las Vegas, several companies led by Mercedes- Benz and Ford showed off their driverless technology. Mercedes even brought a prototype to the show, and it was predicted that at least one company would have a model ready for introduction to the market within five years.
But Google's decision to see the automated car as a service and not a product may be the most important development of all. The handful of policy-obsessed mayors who frequent the MIP meetings left with a bunch of new ideas and a lot to think about. What they might consider when they get back into the office is to cut every parking project in their budgets.