Driverless Cars Are Set to Dominate L.A. Roads, but No One Knows if That’s a Good Thing

The brave new future of autonomous vehicles could have its drawbacks

As cars become more and more autonomous in the coming decades, their design will evolve accordingly. Brakes and steering wheels are expected to disappear by the second half of this century. Seats will recline into beds, while an on-board virtual assistant will automatically plan pickups and errands. Eventually, as human-operated vehicles are phased out, perhaps even outlawed, car interiors might come to resemble small bedrooms, dining rooms, conference rooms, or even spas. In the future, we will all be passengers.

Though it might seem like something out of The Jetsons, industries both public and private are already preparing for this paradigm shift and its deep economic impact (Intel predicts the “passenger economy” will be a $7 trillion industry by 2050). Automakers like General Motors, BMW, and Volvo are all road testing their autonomous vehicles, with some expecting the ubiquity of autopilot mode by the mid-2020s. Uber and Lyft are testing self-driving ventures in places like Pittsburgh and Las Vegas. And last September, Ikea released renderings for seven different “Spaces on Wheels,” including a mobile grocery and a mobile health clinic.

Of course, many of the concepts floated by such companies, no matter how informed, are speculative at best. With the advent of driverless cars, “the dimensions of the vehicles will no longer need to be defined,” according to Sam Schwartz, a former New York traffic commissioner. “In the second half of the century, you won’t need to have lane lines, you won’t need traffic signals, and vehicles can be any size.” By 2060 or 2070, there might be mini-mansions cruising the streets, or mobile hotels that pick you up from a red-eye flight and give you a place to freshen up on the way to your meeting. Whenever they might arrive, one thing is clear: Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will fundamentally remake our cities.

For much of the last century, privately owned vehicles defined L.A. The car enabled the city to sprawl out for miles in every direction, resulting in a sharp decline in density among new suburbs populated by single-family tract homes. Southern California was at the forefront of this postwar development model, pioneering freeways, strip malls, and much of the auto-centric infrastructure that has been emulated by cities around the country. But private vehicle ownership also has had measurable drawbacks. We are infamous for our smog. Our traffic and commute times are among the worst in the nation, and the amount of land gobbled up by roads and parking is staggering. A study released in 2018 by architectural firm Woods Bagot says that over 25 square miles of the Los Angeles Basin is covered by surface parking lots—an area slightly larger than Manhattan. In the face of such problems, many see the dawn of the driverless car as a panacea. City planners, however, are less optimistic.

Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, predicts that AVs will cause many of the same problems caused by today’s vehicles unless the government imposes strict regulation and smart, proactive policies. Ashley Hand, cofounder of Cityfi, a consulting group that helps cities prepare for new technologies, imagines two potential paths for AV integration. The first is what she calls the “utopian model”: Private vehicle ownership all but disappears as the shared use of AV fleets eliminates some 85 percent of cars currently on the road. This would ease a wide range of issues, from congestion to environmental strain to land-use concerns. Emptier roads also would mean emptier parking lots. “Autonomous cars may not need parking because those vehicles will either be synced vehicles that stay in motion or go to remote locations,” Schwartz says. “People will tell their autonomous vehicle to go home and pick them up in the evening.”

This lower demand for parking is already evident at airports, where Uber and Lyft have flipped business models on their heads. But the decrease in parking could come at a price. AVs, whether privately owned or shared, are also likely to increase distances traveled. Ride-sharing services have created a 58 percent rise in mileage, and AVs might birth a phenomenon of “zombie cars” in which empty vehicles zip around on their way to pick up a passenger or return to distant parking depots on the outskirts of urban centers.

Hand’s second scenario envisions that most autonomous vehicles will be privately owned, creating a much more dystopian future. There’s a possibility that “you create even more sprawl, because people can now kick back and watch a movie, or sleep, and not worry about their three-hour commute to and from work,” she explains. “It creates more strain on our environment” and more traffic congestion.

“It can only hurt us if government sits back and waits to set policy—or worse, allows private business to completely control the narrative,” Schwartz writes in No One at the Wheel, his book about the impact of AVs on cities and public transit. “We need to think now about how AVs will affect life, family, ethics, and the environment.”

History has proved that unfettered mass integration of new technology can have far-ranging consequences that are difficult to regulate once Pandora has opened the box. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is in the initial stages of considering congestion pricing for the county’s roads, but an unusually contentious January meeting of Metro’s board showed just how resistant politicians are to the idea. There’s universal agreement, however, about one point: AVs won’t miraculously solve L.A.’s transportation woes. But the city, faced with the arrival of the 2028 Olympics, has staked its vision on an ambitious new public transit plan. “The benefits of fully autonomous technology are unknown,” concedes Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, “but the benefits of public transit are proven.”

Perhaps it might be more realistic to speculate on the impact of automated buses, trains, or trams rather than the cars we drive every day. “There’s going to be more transit construction in L.A. than any other place in the United States,” Schwartz concludes. “So we use AVs to complement that system with AV transit, or AVs that take people the last mile to all these new transit services that will be offered, then L.A. will go forward in a very sound way.” It’s a tall order, but few cities are as perfectly positioned as Los Angeles to pave the way into this brave new future.

RELATED: Self-Driving Cars Are Going to Dramatically Change L.A.’s Car Culture—and Soon

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