Recent Developments in Automated Vehicles Suggest Broad Effects on Urban Life

J. Adam Sorenson, MJLST Staffer

In “Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society” from Volume 16, Issue 2 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, David Levinson discusses the then current state of automated vehicles and what effects they will have on society in the near and distant future. Levinson evaluates the effect of driverless cars in numerous ways, including the capacity and vehicles-as-a-service (VaaS). Both of these changes are illuminated slightly by a recent announcement by Tesla Motors, a large player in the autonomous vehicle arena.

This week Tesla announced Summon which allows a user to summon their tesla using their phone. As of now, this technology can only be used to summon your car to the end of your drive way and to put it away for the night. Tesla sees a future where this technology can be used to summon your vehicle from anywhere in the city or even in the country. This future technology, or something very similar to it, would play a pivotal role in providing urban areas with VaaS. VaaS would essentially be a taxi service without drivers, allowing for “cloud commuting” which would require fewer vehicles overall for a given area. Ford has also announced what it calls FordPass, which is designed to be used with human-driven cars, but allows for leasing a car among a group of individuals and sharing the vehicle. This technology could easily be transferred to the world of autonomous vehicles and could be expanded to include entire cities and multiple cars.

Beyond VaaS, these new developments bring us closer to the benefits to capacity Levinson mentions in his article. Levinson mentions the benefits to traffic congestion and bottlenecks which could be alleviated by accurate and safe autonomous vehicles. Driverless vehicles would allow for narrower lanes, higher speed limits, and less space between cars on the highway, but Levinson concedes that these cars still need to “go somewhere, so auto-mobility still requires some capacity on city streets as well as freeways, but ubiquitous adoption of autonomous vehicles would save space on parking, and lane width everywhere.” Tesla is seeking to alleviate some of these issues by allowing a vehicle to be summoned from a further distance, alleviating some parking congestion.

Audi, however, is seeking to tackle the problem in a slightly different fashion. Audi is partnering with Boston suburb Somerville to develop a network including self-parking cars. “UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup found 30 percent of the traffic in a downtown area is simply people looking for parking” and eliminating this traffic would allow for much higher capacity in these areas. Similarly, these cars will not have people getting in and out of them, allowing for much more compact parking areas and much higher capacity for parking. Audi and Tesla are just some of the companies working to be at the forefront of automated vehicle technology, but there is no denying that whoever the developments are coming from, the effects and changes David Levinson identified are coming, and they’re here to stay.

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