But like any transformative technology — think the Internet and smartphones — there will be inevitable downsides and disruptions, and crowded cities could benefit as well as bear the brunt of the drawbacks of AVs. For example, the jury is still out on whether AVs will increase or decrease traffic in urban areas.
"As you give people autonomous vehicles, that doesn't make the system more efficient," Jeffrey Tumlin, director of strategy at Nelson/Nygaard, a transportation planning firm, said at the recent Autonomous Vehicles Detroit event. "It allows people to live farther away because the time and financial cost of mobility is dropping significantly," he added.
Extra downtime during a long commute is an obvious upside, but it's the long-term unintended consequences of a groundbreaking technology like AVs that are trickier to predict. "When we make changes to the transportation system, the secondary and tertiary impacts of those changes are far greater than the primary impacts," Tumlin added. "This is game theory, and you need to play out the chess game 10, 20 steps further because that's where you start to see the real impacts."
While no one can, of course, predict the full ramifications self-driving cars will have on cities, we're already seeing the initial waves of a transformation occurring in transportation due to technology — and the consumer habits that lead the changes. For example, Tumlin noted that bus ridership in New York City has decreased 10 percent each year since 2013, which he credits to the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
Do the math and this could mean that up to 50 percent of the people who took the bus in New York City five years ago are now being driven by ride-sharing services and clogging up the core of the Big Apple. It's common knowledge that Uber and Lyft — along with automakers and tech companies — are developing robo-taxis so that they can ditch the driver, possibly making their services even less expensive and more attractive to city dwellers than public transportation.
E-commerce and automated delivery are also contributing to urban congestion. I was at an auto show in South Africa back in 2013 when a VW executive revealed eye-opening data that showed how home-delivery services such as Amazon have not only increased city traffic, but also wear and tear on city streets — years before retail was eclipsed by e-commerce.
Just last week, Ford and Dominos announced a trial self-driving pizza-delivery service. While vehicles have been delivering pizzas for years, and the idea of not having to interact with or tip a driver is appealing, imagine having all manner of goods and services delivered to your door via autonomous vehicle. City streets could quickly become a mess.
In the same way that no one could have foreseen the loss of entire industries with the advent of the Internet or the loss of idle time and attention spans with smartphones, no one knows the full range of consequences that self-driving cars will have on cities. Added to this, Tumlin noted that "cities are grossly underfunded and understaffed. And nobody has time to sit around and think about stuff."
But maybe they will in the future, while sitting in city traffic in a robo-taxi.