Shifting Gears

Automotive innovations are driving a new era

In the realm of transportation, we’re seeing a key moment of true disruption that has the potential to reshape our cities and alter how we live.

Even a short five years ago, the idea of autonomous vehicles still seemed far-fetched. It would take decades, one imagined, to perfect autonomous vehicles to the point that they would be safe on our roadways. But companies such as Google and Uber already have driverless vehicles on the road—just this past summer, Uber began operating driverless cars in Pittsburgh as a test market for a wider rollout.

The story of transportation in the United States is a story of change, from Ford’s early Model T to the futuristic-looking Tesla, from street cars to intercity high-speed rail systems. We’re embarking on another chapter in that story, one that will strongly influence how urban areas develop and redevelop and how suburban areas connect to those metro cores.

Mobility as a Service

There’s no doubt we’re at a pivotal moment when it comes to transportation, says Carlos Braceras, vice president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“We’re at a point where the shape of the curve is starting to change,” Braceras says. “This is as significant as when we went from the horse and buggy to vehicles. Within the next five years, I think we’ll look back on the last five years and say, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’”

A big question weighing on the minds of urban planners is how driverless cars and ride-sharing services will change traffic volumes. And that impact is still uncertain. Will driverless cars open up a new world of car ownership for the elderly and disabled—thus putting more cars on the road? Will ride-sharing encourage people to ditch car ownership altogether and carpool into the city—ultimately taking more cars off the road?

Uber and Lyft envision services that will shuttle multiple riders to a shared destination; multiple riders in a single vehicle would cut down on traffic density and demand for parking spaces in cities.

Braceras refers to this as “mobility as a service.” He says it’s not a new concept—that’s essentially what mass transit offers, “but we’re seeing a lot more options, like Uber and Lyft. Technology gives us the ability to use this sharing economy and more efficiently use the vehicles we have. Vehicles are typically only used 5 percent of the time. The other 95 percent of the time they are sitting in a parking spot wasting space. As we see more automation, greater options will be seen. People aren’t going to have to own two or three cars per family.”

Tesla’s Elon Musk imagines the owners of driverless vehicles letting those cars be used in a sharing network. In an update to his Master Plan, released in July 2016, Musk wrote, “You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation. … Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.”

Put it in Park

One reason to believe that driverless cars will put more vehicles on the road, not fewer, is that Americans just love the independence that comes with car ownership. Nothing demonstrates that more than mass transit, which has diminished but not eliminated the demand for parking structures near transit stops.

Jarrod Hunt, senior vice president of industrial services for CBC Advisors’ American Fork, Utah office, says being close to a transit stop is not top of mind for most of his clients when they’re looking for office space. “People enjoy the flexibility of having their own cars to come and go as they please so they’re not setting their schedule based on bus schedules,” he says.

Jim McCoy, former two-term Miami-Dade municipal mayor and managing principle of CBC Advisors’ Miami office, sees a similar trend in Miami. “Like other major metro communities, we don’t have a good infrastructure of mass transit, and we’re feeling the impact of that lately,” he says. “From a personality standpoint, we’re very much into our cars. Surrendering our cars has been a difficult challenge for our leaders to convey to residents. If you have to go two blocks, people drive.”

Miami, struggling with ways to accommodate its tremendous traffic volume, is investing in new mass transit projects. And McCoy is starting to see proposals for large-scale projects with no parking decks. This has been met with a lot of controversy as developers work with planning and zoning departments to get these projects approved.

“It’s very much a mindset and paradigm shift to not being as dependent on our cars,” he says. “But as we become a world-class city, these things are very much on leadership’s mind.”

As cities grapple with increased traffic, ride-sharing with autonomous vehicles may become a significant way to reduce traffic and free up space being used for parking. If, instead of parking your car while at work, you let it drive around the city and pick up riders, you’ll not only be earning money but also freeing up valuable parking space.

Parking decks take up a tremendous amount of real estate within urban areas. In fact, up to a third of a city can be devoted to parking. Just imagine what could be done with that space if the number of cars needing to be parked every day was cut in half or more.

Traffic Flow

Admit it: the idea of cars driving themselves is a bit terrifying. But Braceras says that safety will improve tremendously as human error is eliminated from the equation with new technologies.

“Traffic signals will be talking to cars, eliminating crashes at intersections, and cars will be talking to each other and to traffic signals,” he says. “Cars will know the proper speed to drive on roads. Ninety-four percent of crashes are caused by human error. Eliminating that is a big deal.”

Braceras adds that right now, traffic moves in turbulence, and if autonomous cars can help to harmonize traffic, cities will be able to move more traffic in a way that is better and safer.

One example of that comes from the tech firm Blyncsy, which developed a traffic sensor that picks up electronic signals from cell phones and other devices to track traffic patterns. A sensor can be mounted to light poles or other locations to track everything from the number and volume of vehicles traveling through an intersection to the number of available parking spaces in an area to spikes in demand for public transit.

Pair sensors like this with autonomous vehicles and roadways become safer and traffic flows more smoothly. And when driverless cars can bounce signals off of each other—essentially communicating with each other—the risk of accidents will drop even further. That will also allow cars to drive more tightly together, with less following distance between them, enabling more cars to be on the road at the same time and reducing traffic jams.

While most people imagine cars when thinking about autonomous vehicles, trucks—as in big-rigs—are actually an important area of innovation, especially when it comes to safety. Interstate truck drivers can spend up to 14 hours behind the wheel in one 24-hour period.

“A lot of the miles that trucks put on are mindless miles—it’s more of a matter of staying awake than anything else,” says Hunt. “I can see corridors having dedicated truck lanes for driverless trucks, almost like a carpool lane, so that driverless trucks that are going from the port of Los Angeles to Denver or from Salt Lake City to Des Moines could get in those dedicated lanes and then go to a terminal where a driver would get in and drive the last few miles through city traffic.”

Eliminating those “mindless miles” from the trip would go a long way toward reducing the likelihood of deadly trucking accidents.

Wheels in Motion

While it’s anyone’s guess how new transportation technologies will reshape our communities, it’s clear that the future is now. It’s not just Google and Tesla—most automakers are working on their own driverless models and will have them on the market within five years. And, according to Goldman Sachs, within 15 years, almost 60 percent of car sales will come from fully or partially autonomous vehicles.

“This really still is the stuff of science fiction,” says McCoy. “As it becomes more and more of a reality, its impact on us will have to be observed. Anytime you make transportation easier on individuals, there’s more likelihood of connecting cities, neighborhoods and communities.”

Ultimately, Braceras says people need to understand that transportation is a foundational issue to the world’s economy as well as society as a whole. “When it works, we don’t know it’s there,” he says. “That’s why we have to keep working toward creating a system that allows communities to grow and develop into places we want to live and raise our families.”