Thinking about how driverless cars may impact sprawl, private car ownership

Whether it's Volvo's project SARTRE or Google's driverless car, autonomous vehicles are on the horizon. The question now becomes, what will the view of that horizon look like when they get here.

For now, only Nevada has laws on the books to allow self-driving cars on the road, but Robert Bruegmann, the author of "Sprawl: A Compact History," says that we need to start thinking about what this new technology will do to our environment, specifically: "how will it change the American city? For example, might it allow drivers to commute even farther in relative comfort and safety and thus accelerate sprawl in our urban areas?"

Bruegmann doesn't pretend to know the answer for sure, but he does say that past technological breakthroughs (e.g., the steam railroad, airplanes) had impacts that people didn't really expect when they were new, and that driverless cars will likely follow that trend. He does offer one prediction, though:

What the driverless automobile might do is further break down the distinctions [between public and private transportation]. Suppose an individual can summon a vehicle on demand -- a small capsule like a golf cart for doing errands in the city, for example, or something more like a van to transport a track team to another city -- and that vehicle can go directly from starting point to destination. The flexibility this system could provide might well reduce the incentive for owning an automobile, which has to serve all purposes, is expensive to buy and maintain, and in most cases spends most of its time taking up valuable space in a garage or parking lot.

Some of Bruegmann's ideas sound similar to what we heard from Chris Bangle back in 2010, when he posited a vision of the future that includes driverless cars that disassemble into individual components ( batteries, wheels, seats, etc.) when they're not in use. Read more about that concept here. We've also heard other interesting ideas about the future from Rohit Talwar: how cell phones will affect EVs, anyone?

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