If self-driving cars are inevitable, why aren’t our cities preparing?

An article released today highlights how few cities in the world are actually preparing for autonomous vehicles. There is no doubt that self-driving cars will change the infrastructure of our cities and the way we move across it. Despite all the ongoing research, tech development, and buzz surrounding self-driving cars, the majority of policymakers and cities worldwide don’t have autonomous vehicle legislation on their radar. “According to the National League of Cities’ research, only 6 percent of the US’s largest cities’ transportation plans include any language on the potential effect of driverless technology on mobility” (1 Hawkins). Furthermore, there are actually only a very small number of driverless cars being tested in cities today.

However, advances made in the few places that are preparing for AVs are being well documented and updated thanks to Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute. They have teamed up to create an interactive map portraying guides “to who’s doing what, where, and how.”

The map shows that there are currently 53 cities testing or planning on testing autonomous vehicles. Clicking on cities on the maps provides one with information about policy and planning priorities, partners, and what the AVs are being tested for, along with other relevant information. The map is constantly updated in real-time as more information about self-driving car projects in various cities around the world are initiated.  The map will be a very useful resource in the coming age of driverless cars.

In addition to the legislation and policy that will have to be updated for self-driving cars, the physical form of cities will need to be updated too. As we talked about in class, driverless cars need to be able to interact with and understand the city as it moves through it. How will driverless cars interact with pedestrians at crosswalks/stop signs? Will driverless cars have separate lanes that they drive on? How will AVs navigate complex road features like roundabouts? (i.e. Powerhouse circle)


The image above is a cool depiction of how roads might change to accommodate driverless cars as they are updated from phase 1 to phase 4. This depiction is likely the best-case scenario — I’m worried that instead of prioritizing pedestrians, bikers, and public spaces (like showing in phase 4 of the image), AVs will take over cities and how they are designed. If it’s so easy to call a car (plus you can stare at your phone, watch a movie, etc while you’re in the car), what if people were to stop walking everywhere? What if sidewalks and public spaces cease to exist because cities are designed solely for the movement of driverless cars?  This decision is really up to the policymakers whose decisions restrict and guide urban planners and designers.

Furthermore, what if people are reluctant to give up the practice of owning a car privately? If people were to privately-own AVs, how would that ease the problem of traffic congestion? It might work if ALL the cars on the road were driverless, phase 5 models, but since that’s not likely anytime soon, we need to think about the problems having more cars on the road will cause, regardless of if they’re autonomous or not.

This is an especially pressing issue to take into consideration in the United States — where people are already extremely attached to their cars. “… the gap between what environmentalists and planners want for the future — vehicles that are automated, connected, electric, and shared — and what most Americans want — vehicles that are comfortable, affordable, fast, and instantly available — could be impossible to bridge” (1 Hawkins).







  1. I’m worried about cities catering too much to cars as well. Cars are like the sugar of the transportation food pyramid — having too many cars is really unhealthy for society, but AVs may make cars even more enticing than they already are, leading us to gorge on the transportation version of candy and dessert. Cars are fine — even good — in moderation, but they’re really easy to over-consume, especially with the invention of AVs. Like too much sugar leading to health problems, too many cars will lead to health problems of both people and cities.

  2. I really like the first point you made about how you find it strange that cities have not started to prepare better for the introduction of autonomous cars. I think that people in general can agree that fully autonomous cars are only a matter of time and it surprises me how few cities have really taken to testing this technology. Already, people have very ambitious estimations for how soon this technology will be generally adopted and I think this oversight or lack of forethought in lawmakers is one of the things that will hold back the adoption of this technology. The safety and benefits of autonomous driving comes from a vast amount of training data and without training on a cities roads specifically, I could see this dramatically hurting the performance of self driving cars once they are introduced. The second point you made about people eventually stopping walking altogether also worries me. Already with the introduction of better public transportation and the ease of owning a car, people have stopped walking and biking. I think this is a major public health issue and something that I can personally see in my every day life. If this problem continues, people may cease to walk at all. Time outdoors and exercise is incredibly important in leading a happy and healthy life. The article linked below summarizes the need to balance AV infrastructure with keeping an emphasis on pedestrian and biking paths in cities.


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