We asked the experts, including Dutch architects Rem Koolhaas and Ben van Berkel, Toronto planner Jennifer Keesmaat and IDEO partner Danny Stillion.
It’s impossible to ignore the idea that driverless cars will be commonplace in the future, perhaps as soon as 2030. We decided to ask experts what effects they think the technology will have on our cities.
Yves Behar, designer at Fuseproject
The immediate effects of driverless cars will be safer roads, and more time for us to be online – for better or worse. What I’m really interested in is how this will change the form factor of the car and how we sit in it – if we are no longer driving, does the car have to be for 4-5-6 people, can it be smaller or larger? Should passengers face forward at all times? I am particularly interested in the new user interfaces, and the new ways we interact with a vehicle will be radically different from today. In my mind, driverless cars could mean that the car as we know it now could eventually become obsolete; driving will be another craft for aficionados and hobbyists.
Rem Koolhaas, principal architect at OMA
The car is a key element in the smart city. It is now being equipped with increasingly complex monitoring devices. On the one hand, the devices improve the driver’s behaviour, but on the other hand they create a high degree of surveillance. I’m not convinced that the public will welcome this degree of monitoring. I prefer the car not to be a courtroom.
Ben van Berkel, principal architect at UNStudio
A world with driverless cars should ideally mean we no longer require multiple lane highways – instead we can take a more rural approach of single lane roads. The future might entail reduced dimensions of infrastructure which allows more space for nature. In a driverless car we should have more time to daydream, enjoy the view and celebrate entering a city. As architects, we have an opportunity to engage with this more streamlined infrastructure, articulating its relationship to reclaimed civic and rural environments.
Ken Greenberg, principal architect and urban designer at Greenberg Consultants
It’s possible to imagine cities made more livable and walkable by freeing up the vast reservoir of parking spaces, reducing collisions, aiding with the challenge of the “last mile” combined with transit, and enhancing mobility for people who can’t drive. On the other hand, a dystopian misuse of driverless technology could promote vast sprawl, separation and isolation, disrupting and distorting the urban project.
Li Xiaodong, architect
I don’t believe in driverless car at all. I think that our lives have shifted too much toward the abstract, and we’re losing experiences that give life meaning. I simply cannot imagine a life in which machines do everything for us.
Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner for the City of Toronto
One of the most significant transformations we’ll see will be the end of car ownership – this is a no-brainer. It will increasingly become an absurdity to own a car that sits unused when it could be out there driving around running errands, picking up other people.
Something being played up a lot is how autonomous vehicles might facilitate sprawl, because people will now say, heck, the long commute – I’m not the one driving, it doesn’t matter. That’s a moot point. A long commute is a long commute, whether you’re driving or whether you’re sitting behind the wheel. We already have long commutes! And we already know they don’t work. Even though you might be reading a book, you’re still trapped in that vehicle, and that’s an hour and a half of your day that you could be doing something else.
The driverless car is no panacea for sprawling suburban development. We are in the midst of a great inversion, with people trading in their cars and suburban homes for urban neighbourhoods, walkability and transit. But there are way too few of these neighbourhoods to go around, so the rich colonize them, and the less advantaged get pushed out. It’s time to get beyond the car, get beyond suburban sprawl and build more of the denser, transit-served communities that people want.
Paul Kulig, principal, urban design and transit at Perkins+Will
By separating the drop-off and parking functions of urban shopping streets, we can take advantage of underutilized spots across a neighbourhood: ubiquitous street parking could be replaced by drop-offs on each block, with the balance of space allocated to pedestrians, cyclists, patios or trees. Similarly, low-volume residential streets could be narrowed to one lane and the space given over to community uses.
Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of Daimler AG
Currently, the assumption is that fewer vehicles will be on the road in dense city areas, but that traffic will increase in the intermediate areas. One possible development in the inner city is the creation of safety zones, accessible only to vehicles equipped with automatic accident prevention systems. This frees up space occupied by safety measures such as guardrails.
Danny Stillion, partner and executive design director at IDEO
A new type of “third space” that exists between the home and work will emerge in the form of a new generation of autonomous vehicles. Long established city landmarks such as post offices may give way to a new generation of autonomous delivery vehicles capable of accepting and dropping off packaged goods on demand. Some of these mobile offices will take on forms more closely resembling architecture, rather than the cars we know today, and they will provide new spaces in which to work. Your workspace comes to you. Systems like this will ultimately provide an adaptive smart overlay on top of existing city infrastructures.
Karim Rashid, designer
There are almost 1 billion cars on the road worldwide. It will take more than driverless cars to end gridlock, bottlenecks and traffic jams. I’d like to see more than one passenger in every car compulsory, and parking organized using digital chips on license plates to avoid meters and coins.
Sam Jacob, principal architect and designer at Sam Jacob Studio
New forms of transport have often been the product of technological progress. But they have also been the agents of rapid social change. Current forms of transport organize us in one of two ways: as private individuals behind our own wheels, or as users of public, mass transit systems. Each is a way of participating in the life of the city, and each has always had a certain ideology associated with it. But driverless individual transport could, perhaps, transform these old battle lines. The prospect of combining individual autonomy with mass public transit might present a chance to realize a long-dreamt-of urban utopia: a kind of fully automated socialised system that gives us individual autonomy and freedom.
Lisa Rapaport, landscape architect with PLANT Architect
In addition to looking forward to getting back my leisure time while my road trip is driven for me, I also look forward to the expanded public realm for pedestrians and cyclists, since driverless cars should need less lane width – North American lane widths promote speed and less attentiveness (amazing how much narrower they are in Europe).
Jeremy Vandermeij, executive director of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival
Apps for carpooling could allow for shared traveling both short and long distances without increasing travel time by much. And inside cars, we’ll see an increase in visual displays for watching media, working and teleconferencing.
Benedict Evans, mobile expert at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz
Where does a driverless car go afterwards – does it drop you off for dinner and spend the next few hours driving other people around, for a fee? The more autonomous cars there are, the more appealing on-demand becomes. Where does it leave public transport if routes start emptying out, and what does that mean for people on very low incomes? What does it do to cycling?