We’re on the road to a driverless future

Autonomous vehicles will be commonplace in our lifetime, and we need to plan ahead.

Chris Iverson

If I still have any loyal readers out there, you are probably getting tired of listening to me talk about non-motorized transportation. I apologize for blabbering about the wondrous world of movement, but I feel like shifting gears for a little while — pun intended. At this point, you know I love transit, biking and walking as viable alternatives to driving. But in rural Minnesota and a majority of the Twin Cities suburbs, it’s pretty hard to get around without having a vehicle. If you do have that magical mobile machine, any destination is reasonably accessible. Taking a drive up north to the cabin by the lake is an easy motion. Want to take that same trip on a bike? Good luck.

In an opposite light, Minneapolis has a myriad of truly viable alternative transportation options, ranging from painted bike lanes to new peer-to-peer car sharing services like Lyft and Uber. At the same time, many places within the city are not well-equipped for vehicles, as battling for parking spaces seems to raise tensions heavier than those seen in the Ukraine nowadays.

Transportation needs an equalizing force, a mode that takes the best of both worlds, provides convenience for riders and increases road safety overall.

I am talking, of course, about autonomous, driverless vehicles.

How it works

Fully autonomous cars are exactly what they sound like: self-driving. These vehicles would be able to drive without a true driver, eliminating all potential human error in the process. Currently, 90 percent of car accidents stem from human error. Essentially, these automobiles would act as taxis, escorting riders from point A to point B, all without the burden of dealing with the taxi driver. In the long term, driverless cars would revolutionize the way we think about and act around roads.

What sounds like a sci-fi fantasy is, surprisingly, coming soon. In 2010, an Audi autonomous TTS with driverless capabilities drove to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. That same year, a fleet of driverless vans accomplished a modern-day version of Marco Polo’s excursion from Italy to China, driving 8,000 miles without human assistance. Google is testing driverless vehicles, and in 2012 its fleet successfully drove more than 300,000 miles without one accident. Google plans to release these vehicles to the market in 2018, and Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and other car companies are releasing their own versions in 2020.

Driverless car deployment is now a matter of when, not if, and government entities need to be prepared. This vehicle turnover will affect not only roads, but land use.

“You probably don’t need parking garages anymore once you have driverless cars,” Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas, told the Tampa Bay Times. “You’d just call an autonomous taxi to pick you up in the morning and return you in the afternoon. Somewhere from 20 to 80 percent of urban land area could be repurposed.”

Officials in U.S. states and cities need to be prepared for the next transportation revolution. Technology limitations and social acceptance barriers will likely elongate the majority of autonomous vehicle deployment periods, giving time for government officials to adjust their policies as trends form. However, in order to capitalize on autonomous vehicles’ full potential, we will need to establish proper infrastructure to see the fruition of these modern technologies. Minneapolis can place itself in a favorable position if it adjusts infrastructure to accommodate autonomous vehicles.

What to change

Minneapolis should, first and foremost, compose and pass legislation allowing autonomous movements within city limits. The Minneapolis City Council should establish the city as an autonomous pioneer. More driverless vehicles means fewer conventional vehicles, which will lead to fewer accidents and less burdensome traffic. The precise nature of driverless cars means more roadway space for bikes and pedestrians.

Minneapolis should also encourage its citizens to utilize autonomous car-sharing companies rather than car ownership, which will reduce parking demand over time. This could render parking spaces obsolete within urban areas, opening up the underutilized land for development and an increased tax base.

The city should demonstrate autonomous acceptance by adding driverless vehicles to its fleet. Minneapolis police could deploy autonomous cop vehicles, which would provide a roving, unmanned patrol in areas with high crime rates. The city could release unmanned snow plows with manned vehicles during storms and help maintain road conditions.

A world with driverless cars would be radically different than the world we see today. If we implemented them correctly, driverless vehicles would enhance urban forms and make roads safer for all users. Local, state and national government officials need to establish a foundation for driverless cars to thrive on sooner rather than later.