AnnaLisa Meyboom wants to see Vancouver become a test bed for the driverless cars that she says are destined to dominate the city’s roads in the future.
When it comes to technology, the assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture predicts that driverless vehicles—in which a human may provide the destination while the car handles the rest—will have “one of the hugest impacts” on urban areas and their residents.
“They don’t need the one-and-a-half seconds of reaction time,” Meyboom, who’s the director of UBC’s Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab, said during an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “So you can make your roads much narrower, and you can make them much more efficient. That’s quite far in the future, when you’re looking at all people being in autonomous vehicles. But it has the potential to free up a lot of road space for patios or for other recreational uses, for bike lanes—things like that.”
According to a report published in January by the Conference Board of Canada, Google hopes to make self-driving vehicles available to the public between 2017 and 2019. Meanwhile, several car manufacturers plan to have autonomous vehicles for sale by 2025.
The report says that driverless vehicles are expected to promote the use of automated taxis over car ownership, reduce the need for parking spaces, and save lives by virtually eliminating collisions caused by human error. However, it suggests that the technology will result in both urban densification and sprawl, and job losses among truck, taxi, and bus drivers and workers in other fields related to road transportation.
“We can expect that the existing taxi, car-rental, and car-share business models will converge,” the report states.
Meyboom noted that it remains to be seen whether driverless vehicles will have positive or negative consequences for social equity and the environment. She maintained that this largely depends on government policy.
“The danger with equity is that the high technology goes to saving lives of rich people because of the fact that only the wealthy can afford the vehicles,” Meyboom said.
Kristin Eberhard, a senior researcher for the Sightline Institute—a Seattle-based think tank—told the Straight that, in the “optimistic scenario”, the technology results in fewer cars being used by more people. Since driverless vehicles will likely be electric, she said, this will also lead to a dramatic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.
“There would be some kind of a fleet of on-demand cars that would be used for city driving, and maybe then you’d have a separate fleet that’s designed specifically for longer distances or intercity,” Eberhard explained by phone from Portland. “Then you would own a membership, where you’d pay either by the month or by the mile to have access to that vehicle whenever you needed it.”
However, Eberhard described a “nightmare scenario” in which vehicles go driverless but remain individually owned. As well, people might use cars more because they can read and sleep instead of driving, and send unoccupied cars to park and pick up passengers and parcels.
Eberhard argued that governments need to “start charging the right price for the use of the roads” in order to prepare for driverless vehicles.
“When you have autonomous vehicles that could be driving around a lot more than people right now drive around, potentially if you don’t change the way the tax structure works and make them pay when they do drive, they could be incentivized to just circle around all the time because there’s no cost,” Eberhard said. “That could actually make congestion worse.”
According to Jarrett Walker, a public-transit planning and policy consultant who has worked for TransLink and other transit authorities, driverless taxis offered by companies like Uber and Lyft will eventually supplant car ownership, but they won’t eliminate the need for buses. Indeed, the author of Human Transit pointed out that the driverless bus is an “easier problem” than the driverless car.
“One of the major challenges to the driverless car is the exhaustive detail of computerized mapping of the world that driverless cars need to have to navigate,” Walker told the Straight by phone from Portland. “The detail of what they need to know about every laneway that they might go down in every city is vastly greater than what we need in order to run a driverless bus up and down Broadway.”
Driverless technology could facilitate a substantial increase in bus service, Walker suggested, because the cost of labour is the “predominant limiting factor”.
“There’s just not much of a barrier to abundance anymore, once you’re not paying an employee for every vehicle,” Walker said. “Fundamentally, folks in Vancouver already understand this, because they understand how SkyTrain works.”
Representatives for the City of Vancouver, TransLink, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, and Transport Canada declined to be interviewed for this story.
Meyboom asserted that governments need to take into account the imminent arrival of driverless vehicles when making transportation-infrastructure decisions. The UBC professor suggested that the City of Vancouver look at attracting research on this technology that supports the goals of its Greenest City Action Plan.
“So they could say, ‘Yes, we’re interested in this technology, but only if it reduces greenhouse gases. Therefore, we’re going to be a test bed for vehicle networks or vehicle technologies that will get us toward this goal,’” Meyboom said.