Is the mass sharing of driverless cars about to reshape our suburbiums?

Sidewalk Labs believes personal vehicle ownership is about to become history, constructing suburbiums more accessible and better for walking and cycling. But what if it simply entails people jostle each child into a different vehicle to get to school?

A few months ago I interviewed Klaus Bondam, head of the Danish cycling union and formerly Copenhagens mayor for roads and infrastructure, and asked him how he saw his city changing in the course of the year. The answer was something of a surprise.

Look at something like car parking, Bondam told me. Its so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think its going to be a combination of shared vehicles, of city automobiles, of modes of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.

This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: Im totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and dont utilize?

This was, of course, Copenhagen, which already has very high levels of cycling, and measures to curb private car employ. But other people also believe that such a transport revolution could be coming to other urban areas.

The key element of this is the advent of the driverless auto. These might seem something for the distant future, but the technology is already affecting peoples lives auto insurance premiums are predicted to plummet in the next few years as crash-avoidance and sensor-triggered braking systems become more widespread.

Leading the way on driverless technology are tech firms, notably Google. One effect of this is that research into driverless vehicles involves not just how they might work, but how they could be used, a product of the computer engineers traditional impatience with inefficient or wasteful systems.

All this inevitably draws engineers towards the idea of automobile sharing. As Bondam notes, each person, or family, having their own automobile is absurdly inefficient and leaves everyone, auto user or not, having to deal with external factors such as streets cluttered with parked vehicles, and cars crawling along go looking for parking.

Sharing systems already exist in many cities , not least bike networks of the type seen in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. App-based taxi services such as Uber are broadly similar, although they create their own problems , not least a large number of vehicles cruising round as they await fares, causing pollution and congestion.

One Google-spinoff company is trying to look further into the future for more radical answers. Anand Babu, chief operating officer at Sidewalk Labs, believes cities could be fundamentally reshaped by the mass arrival of shared, driverless vehicles, something he forecasts to happen sooner than many people think.

The intention of Sidewalk Labs is to reshape cities through the conjunction of clever planning and hi-tech solutions. It is working on LinkNYC, a joint venture between New York City and CityBridge, a consortium involving Sidewalk Labs, to turn defunct payphone booths into digital hubs, and Flow, a more ambitious plan aimed at helping urban areas monitor and manage traffic more effectively.

A LinkNYC kiosk in New York

Babu, formerly head of special projects for Google, concedes it is early days for his company. When technologists approach cities, the criticism is that they treat it like any other software problem, he says. Were trying to avoid that.

And while he emphasizes the risks in trying to predict the future, Babu says there could soon be big and interconnected changes for transport in what he calls the 20 -1 00 mph scope vehicles and what might replace them and the 10 -2 0mph scope, covering cycling and other more short-range travelling modes.

Driverless cars, Babu says, could have a particular impact in expansive US cities, making often moribund outer suburbs easily accessible and most attractive, in turn relieving the pressure on people to live in service centres. With mass driverless car sharing, he argues, you would need far fewer vehicles overall, leaving neighborhoods much more attractive for walking or cycling.

Babu believes there is tremendous latent demand for people to live in communities based around walking and bikes. As he find it, the suburbium( or inner city) of the future would ensure people hop on a bike either for local trips or to access to the next, more rapid form of transport, be it a driverless car or public transport.

You could potentially move to a model where these suburban cities that were so reliant on individual vehicles could become incredibly well-connected metropolitan areas, where you could get anywhere within 30 minutes, plus a first mile/ last mile of strolling or bike connect, he says. Youre in a high-speed, shared vehicle for the majority of miles, but then the last mile or first mile you espouse a wide quantity of innovation around all sorts of personal vehicles, whether self-powered or electric powered, to connect.

The idea of a company such as Google taking an interest in cycling might seem anomalous. But urban cycling, like shared vehicles, can appeal to tech firms focus on efficient and adaptable technology.

Google announced last year a plan to combat road congestion around its headquarters in Mountain View, California by getting together with the local county government to plan and build a network of useable and safe bike lanes.

It followed research into local commuting patterns that saw 20% to 30% of trip-ups were under five miles perfectly achievable on a bike in the agreeable local climate.

This slightly Truman Show-style image of cities filled with benign, never-crashing, always-available shared automobiles does, however, come with various caveats.

For example, its perfectly possible people might shun Babus first or last mile on a motorcycle or e-bike and get driven right to their door, thus maintaining traffic on residential roads and doing nothing to improve the globes ongoing pandemic of ailments links with sedentary living.

Cities could move to a model where you could get anywhere within 30 minutes with a first mile/ last mile bike connection, says Anand Babu of Sidewalk Labs. Photo: Alamy

Also, with automobiles often criticised for their depersonalising and divisive impact on urban life, this atomisation could increase all the more if they are simply replaced by driverless versions.

Rachel Aldred, a transport expert at the University of Westminster, argues that various visions are feasible. Theres alternative solutions and scary future where people is more and more individualised they jostle each of their children into a driverless car to go to school, she says. And people could expend a lot of time in driverless automobiles. Im not saying that is going to happen, but there are different trends, potentially, that you might see.

Aldred continues: We need to do more thinking about what exactly we want driverless vehicles used for, and who will use them. The trade-offs are not always recognised.

On the one hand people say theyll be much more efficient, which would spare road capability, which is great if that is the case. But on the other hand it will open up the benefits of vehicle mobility to many more people, who currently have limited access. You cant have it both ways.

Which way will it go? What does seem very possible is that the hegemony of the private car, find for so many decades as immutable and permanent, could aim sooner than many people believe, maybe even within Bondams predicted timeframe.

Fifty years ago, the business behemoths of the day were collaborating with city planners to drive urban motorways through city centres. These are now gradually being removed as with, for example, Pariss decision to close the Voie Georges-Pompidou along the Seine for a trial period of six months.

The new industrial giants, such as Google, are looking beyond antiquated issues including free-flowing motor traffic and towards cities in which people enjoy living.

They wont always get it right. Babu excitedly told me about the potential for low-cost, lightweight carbon-fibre cycle flyovers, which might be technologically nifty but fall into the classic trap of find the bike as something to be removed from a city rather than placed at its centre.

But the fact he and other tech innovators are even supposing such things is fostering. The transport revolution is coming. Youll merely have to wait to see precisely how it seems.

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