Self-Driving Cars

by Emily Foley, Planning Tech at M-Group

As self-driving cars move from science fiction to reality, city planners will have to consider how self-driving cars (also called autonomous vehicles) will affect cities. Future car technology will likely change our cities needs for maps, parking, gas stations, and streets. City planners will need to update their cities as we all transition from a driven to driverless society.


For self-driving cars to work their best, they need to be backed up by maps. In addition to short and long range sensor systems to tell them what is on the street, they need to know where they are and where they are going, and for that they rely on maps. Currently, the Google cars use a much more advanced map system than just regular Google Maps. In addition to the street network and lane configuration, it has details down to the location of curb cuts and lampposts, at four inches precision. This allows the car to know exactly where intersections are, as well as the lines to stop at one. The car’s sensors process the data automatically in real time, but having some of it verified beforehand makes the car maneuvers smoother. This affects infrastructure because any potential change to the streetscape: new curb cuts, bike lanes, or closing or opening a road entirely, could have major effects on an self-driving car’s ability to safely drive. A benefit of the cars is they learn from each other, and any software can be updated automatically. It would be infeasible to have a team of humans verifying newly collected map data and changes for every new development in the country. The source article for this information did not believe Google would be able to map every existing road, let alone ones that change or may not exist yet. 

This is how a self-driving car sees the world

This is how a self-driving car sees the world


Self-driving cars could fundamentally change a city’s parking patterns. Right now, consumers want plentiful parking, as close as possible to their destination. With self-driving cars however, it may be possible to change this preference. If cars can park themselves, riders could be dropped off while the car looks for a place to park. The parking spaces could be located further from downtowns, shopping malls, and office parks and in larger, tighter structures that would be for cars only – no humans allowed. Mechanical structures that lift cars into spaces could become a more viable option. This would also create opportunities for infill development on former parking lots. In especially crowded areas, where it is very difficult to park, the car may even consider driving home and waiting until the driver wishes to be picked up again. Anew source of congestions could also be created by large numbers of self-driving cars circling around the edge of a city waiting for the signal to pick up their rider.

People being constantly dropped off might cause congestion and could create a new need for infrastructure. Shopping areas in the near future may need to create designated drop off areas or porte-cocheres so that traffic flow is not interrupted. Older areas and downtowns may have to retrofit as cars attempt to drop off passengers at the door of their desired restaurant in the middle of a very crowded street.

Ideally, these drop-off zones will look more like hotels and less like airports or schools

Ideally, these drop-off zones will look more like hotels and less like airports or schools

Vehicle Miles Traveled

With the ability to drop passengers off and park further away, and the possibility that by reducing driver- and commute-related stress people may choose to live further away from their workplaces, there is a possibility that self-driving cars will increase the vehicle miles traveled (VMT). VMT has been tracked on various scales for the last several years, primarily for its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional combustion engine cars produce a lot of carbon dioxide and other pollution that contributes to climate change and human health issues. While it may be an aesthetically pleasing and convenient solution to place parking far away, it could increase the impact cars have on climate change. Policies regarding electric vehicles have been encouraging consumers to buy for years, and soon it will be possible to get an affordable electric car. Self-driving car policy makers should keep that in mind, and consider coupling self-driving car regulations with electric car incentives to help offset emissions associated with increased VMT.

Gas Stations

It’s important to remember that self-driving cars aren’t inherently going to be electric vehicles, but it’s very likely that they will be. Bloomberg predicts the market shift from gas to electric is also going to happen in the late 2020s or early 2030s. However, this will also change infrastructure as gas stations become unnecessary. One might think the solution would be to retrofit the gas stations as charging stations, but the amount of time it takes to recharge a vehicle makes this impractical. As we see today at many grocery stores and shopping malls, any on-the-go recharging will only happen at destinations people tend to be at for a considerable amount of time. For road trips, electric car drivers will do what they currently do: plan rest breaks around locations with charging stations, and stay at hotels with chargers. Tesla has created a number of Supercharger Stations throughout the country to serve Tesla drivers on long trips, but they may be no more conveniently located or faster than the parking space chargers outside of your local Target (in California, the Supercharger might be more important in Wyoming). 

EV charging station

EV charging station

Lane Widths

Some researchers believe that it would be possible to decrease lane widths. If every car is moving predictably and along a (more or less) fixed route, there is no need for extra space. This could make space for additional lanes in existing right of ways. However, this may not be an accurate prediction. For one, it would require a fully autonomous fleet, not a mix of regular and self-driving cars. The time it will take for a complete turnover of all cars to self-driving cars makes planning for it more than a little premature.  Secondly, in the meantime there may be an argument for widening lanes while autonomous cars are entering the public realm. Between cars pulling over when or where they are not supposed to, or having trouble recognizing lane markers (especially in low light, bad weather, on curves, and at forks and merging lanes), it may be beneficial to widen lanes as much as possible.

All in all, self-driving cars will contribute greatly to shaping our future streets and cities. Planners should prepare themselves and their cities before problems associated with a large number of self-driving cars arise. 

I for one, welcome our new marshmallow-y robot overlords

I for one, welcome our new marshmallow-y robot overlords


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