Imagine There's No Drivers

And no traffic lights. And no parking lots. It isn’t hard to do.

Peter’s meeting on the twenty-first floor of the Tesla Building in New York is running late, and his next appointment is across town. It shouldn’t be a problem, because he’s pre-ordered a self-driving CityCar for the trip. As he emerges from the elevator, he can see the empty personal transportation pod pulling up in front of the building. Its headlights flash as it connects with the locator on his phone.

In the near future, urban planners say, the private car—a staple of contemporary life for more than a century—will begin a long fade.

Peter slips into the back seat and starts making calls with his tablet open as the battery-powered transporter navigates city streets—no longer slowed down by traffic lights, rubbernecking, or other human errors. Arriving in ten minutes—exactly as his phone’s CityCar app predicted—Peter hops out of the transporter, which continues on to its next fare. If nobody’s waiting, it will tuck itself into the nearest garage.

In the near future, urban planners say, the private car—a staple of contemporary life for more than a century—will begin a long fade. City residents will hail autonomous door-to-door rides the way they do taxis today, but shared-use fleets will add up to far fewer cars than our current count of more than 1.2 billion worldwide and will also operate at less cost. To me, there’s little doubt that these fleets will be electric, both as a way to clear the air in polluted cities and as examples of an obvious synergy: battery-powered cars can not only park themselves but begin charging wirelessly, too. And they cost much less to operate than conventional fuel hogs. Their biggest benefit, to me, is their promise to reduce or even eliminate the annual carnage on the highways—there were more than 35,000 US traffic deaths in 2015, a significant increase from the previous year.

Even without switching to an electric fleet, autonomy is inherently green. A new report from the National Renewable Energy Lab and the University of Maryland says that widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles “can lead to dramatic fuel savings” of more than 15 percent through more efficient driving alone; however, it cautions that increased travel—at greater speeds—could tip the balance in the other direction.

Transportation accounts for 26 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and a 2014 report from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America projects that what it called “intelligent transportation systems” could cut fuel use and related climate emissions by two to four percent per year over the next ten years.

The future vision is straight out of science fiction—sleek, highly efficient people-movers traveling along clean, uncluttered urban boulevards at high speeds. Among the travelers controlling them will be communities shut out of mobility now—because they’re elderly, disabled, or too young. We’ve had this dream a long time: at the World’s Fair of 1939, General Motors’ Futurama exhibit imagined that in the far-off world of 1960 we’d be speeding across the country autonomously with “a safe distance between cars maintained by automatic radio control.”

To understand how thoroughly self-driving cars will change our stagnant and car-clogged urban reality, it’s necessary only to visit MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, which is predicting the death of the traffic light. Using the slot-based system developed by MIT with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the Italian National Research Council, self-driving cars bristling with sensors will negotiate intersections by talking to the cars around them and maintaining a safe distance at all times. Carlo Ratti, who directs the SENSEable Lab, says that cars “will get to an intersection exactly when there’s a slot available to them.” If you want an idea of how it works, think of air traffic control for airports.

Traffic lights are a 150-year-old technology originally conceived for horse carriages. Will they survive the advent of autonomous vehicles?

Lawrence Burns, director of the Program on Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a former vice president of General Motors, says efficient driving and sharing will free up our streets—currently lined with privately owned vehicles that sit idle 90 to 95 percent of the time. “It turns out that 18,000 cars could do what 120,000 are doing today,” Burns said. “And we can also reduce the out-of-pocket cost of driving. Right now we’re paying something like $1.60 per mile in cost plus time, but that could go down to 15 cents in a driverless model.”

MIT estimates that a city such as Singapore could meet its mobility needs with one-fifth as many vehicles as it has now. Ratti told me he sees self-driving cars as promising “a dramatic impact on urban life,” blurring the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. Fewer cars, he says, “could dramatically lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it.” Other benefits of this new mobility include “shorter travel times, less congestion, and a smaller environmental impact.”

The best thing about reducing car fleets is the promise of reclaiming urban space for people, something I’ve seen dramatically illustrated in auto-free spaces from Dublin to Santa Monica. It’s ironic that a car writer would advocate banning cars, but art galleries, performance artists, and pedestrian walkways are much nicer than parking lots.

Ratti points out that parking infrastructure in the US covers approximately 5,000 square miles, “an area larger than Puerto Rico.” Urban designer Kinder Baumgardner, a principal at SWA in Texas, told me that 56 of Houston’s 293 downtown blocks are currently devoted to surface parking, and 49 to garages. The region’s recently expanded Katy Freeway—with up to 26 lanes, the world’s widest—could end up wildly bigger than necessary because of self-driving efficiencies.

“Maybe we’ll only need eight lanes,” Baumgardner told me, adding that it’s unclear whether our cities will be able to quickly repurpose that space. “I see a lot of what I call ‘feral land’ appearing in our city centers that nobody will know what to do with, at least initially,” he said. “It won’t all be absorbed into the park system, because there won’t be funding available. Maybe we’ll encourage urban agriculture and learn to appreciate heirloom weeds. But I think eventually there will be entrepreneurial opportunities. Young people will be able to go in and set up businesses—cafés and bars, clothing shops—that won’t have prohibitive parking requirements attached to them.” Pedestrians will be winners, as will the cyclists whose lanes will become wider and more numerous.

And it’s all happening faster than you might think. nuTonomy, a company that grew out of MIT research and makes ride-hailing software, is putting autonomous electric Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV cars (a dozen by the end of 2016) into Singapore’s central business district—and they’re already picking up invited passengers. It’s not full autonomy, though, since “safety drivers” are in the car for the ride.

Uber has partnered with Volvo to put 100 modified XC90s on the road in downtown Pittsburgh, and customers can summon the semi-autonomous vehicles with their smartphones. Those cars also have human “supervisors” in the driver’s seat, but the two companies are collaborating on a $300 million plan to make fully autonomous cars available by 2021.

“I think the Volvo move was inevitable,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an automotive research analyst at Navigant Consulting. “It’s been clear for some time that Uber would like to shift away from human drivers to autonomous vehicles, in part to avoid the problems they’ve had with the whole employee-vs.-contractor argument. Ultimately, autonomous mobility-on-demand (AMOD) is the end game for Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, and everyone else involved in ride-hailing. And if Apple wants to get into transportation, it will be for them as well.”

Volvo is also supporting self-driving cars at home—in an ambitious experiment called Drive Me that is backed by the Swedish government. Some 100 autonomous XC90s will haul selected commuters to and from work in the port city of Gothenburg, where the company is based, beginning in 2017. Volvo calls it “the world’s biggest large-scale pilot project in autonomous driving,” and the prospect of these cars’ gaining real-world experience on city streets is exciting.

One of the biggest questions looming in the bright and shiny, driverless future is private ownership. For the past century, drivers have mostly owned their cars; who says they’ll easily give them up now?

Volvo’s new production cars, including the XC90 and the S90, have semi-autonomous technology built in, as will some Cadillacs in 2017; Tesla’s Autopilot is even more advanced. It’s not yet sitting in the back seat with your cellphone, but it’s on the road to that. Even though autonomous cars could mean the end of the auto industry as we know it—who will care about brands in a ride-hailing universe?—nearly every car company is developing self-driving technology, and few would bet against a future without steering wheels.

Ford is also targeting 2021 as the date for a fleet of its fully autonomous cars in a commercial ride-hailing service. And Ford recognizes that it’s facing a big change in how it does business—from car seller to ride provider.

One of the biggest questions looming in the bright and shiny, driverless future is private ownership. For the past century, drivers have mostly owned their cars; who says they’ll easily give them up now? We’ve built our communities—suburbs, especially—around private cars, and ownership has been what works best there. It seems likely that urbanites will give up their keys long before suburbanites do.

But owning cars reduces the benefits of making them autonomous. Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar, told me that how we introduce self-driving cars into cities really matters. “I see them as the tip of the spear by which we have a do-over for cities, transportation, and the social contract with labor,” she told me. The key, she believes, is shaping the rules to encourage not only shared cars but also shared trips. Without abandoning auto ownership in dense urban areas, she cautions that autonomy could actually increase vehicle miles traveled. Human nature being what it is, she said, people will use their cars more if they don’t actually have to drive them.

“Autonomous vehicles could become shared electric vehicles, providing a rapid electrification of our transport sector as well as reducing the number of cars in cities by as much as 80 percent. Shared self-driving cars would return cities to people-centered, rather than car-centered, places to live,” Chase said. “We can build sustainable, livable, and just cities if we are proactive about promoting these vehicles through the right and appropriate incentives.”

It won’t be easy. Among factors to consider, Chase said, is the coming huge drop in gas tax revenue, as well as impending job loss for drivers of trucks, shuttles, and buses. “This conversation about loss of jobs will need to be weighed against important reductions in our US traffic death toll,” Chase said.

The obvious comparison to the current crossroads is the transition from the horse to the horseless carriage, which took place over more than 20 years. It was messy, just like our current transition will be. It’s unlikely that we’ll see fully self-driving vehicles (with passengers in the back seat) in wide use by 2021. But today’s urban planners see the possibilities, and they’re eager to divorce the private automobile from the urban center as soon as possible. It was never a comfortable fit anyway.


Jim Motavalli is, most recently, the author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry (Rodale). He writes for Car Talk at National Public Radio, for BBC Autos, and for He also contributes to the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and hosts a radio program on WPKN-FM in Connecticut.


About the Header Image: A futuristic ad from the mid-1950s shows a family playing dominoes in their self-driving car. Sponsored by “America's Independent Electric Light and Power Companies,” or by individual local utilities, the ad appeared in newspapers and magazines and reads in part, “Electricity may be the driver. One day your car may speed along an electric superhighway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road . . . No traffic jams . . . no collisions . . . no driver fatigue.”
From the Advertising Archive/Courtesy Everett Collection