No eyes on the road: The impact of driverless vehicles

The idea that space can be repurposed by breaking dependence on the purchase, maintenance, and storage of a big machine is a great boon for the sustainable future of cities, writes SmithGroupJJR's David Varner.

November 11, 2015 |
SmithGroup Perspectives blog

In the world of urban design, it seems one of the hottest topics to consider is the impact of driverless vehicles. The interesting distinctions I’m seeing are in the notion of autonomy versus participation and command. Innovation, cultural connection, safety, security, health, and resiliency all depend on mobility at their fundamental beginning.

The idea that space, both at a city scale and the personal level, can be repurposed by breaking dependence on the purchase, maintenance and storage of a big machine is a great boon for the sustainable future and resiliency of cities. Taking this notion to its fantastic boundaries, I’m reminded of the Guild Navigators in Dune, folding space and time via the fictional Holtzman Effect.

In a more realistic dream, however, the idea that dedication of lots of space and time to the requirement of personally guiding a complex vehicle is not that hard to break. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler AG, discussed interesting propositions of big data, sharing, and autonomy at the Economic Club of Washington, DC. As a pioneer of shared cars and subminiature urban vehicles, Zetsche foresaw an interesting interim solution where cars can act autonomously part of the time and be human-guided the rest. For instance, what if your house no longer needed a garage? The lot’s a little smaller, there’s less to maintain, and your car is stored more compactly down the street in a communal garage where it can be instructed to come and pick you up at your front door, then you drive off. What if you could run to the store or mall, hop out, and have the car find its own parking space? There are two months each year that would certainly brighten because of that!

Zetsche also envisioned a combination of owned and shared vehicles. The solution does not have to be “either-or”, it can be “both-and” thanks to technology and big data. Clearly, at the urban design level, every city would benefit from less parking, reduced paving, and more green space. Wide right-of-ways between buildings might have origins in the turning radius of a wagon, but now they can be environmental advantages at both ground and upper floor levels, as well as more humane resources for our natural tendencies towards biophilia.

The bigger picture issue is, of course, mobility and the rest are just details. Psychologically, what does each of us gain from being mobile, and how do we make the world a better place because of it? Perhaps it’s more than simply being transported for purpose, there’s pleasure in the active engagement of the journey. I, for one, enjoy driving (often very fast!) and would, therefore, hope we can have the choice not to be a passenger all of the time; there are other benefits accompanying a sense of control.

The melding of machine and technology forever seems to be in its infancy, so I’m hopeful we can make our cities and homes better quickly by supporting and encouraging Dr. Z’s vision of the future.

About the Author: “I’m wired to build things,” says David Varner, who leads the Washington, D.C., Workplace Studio, “and the things I like to build require a group effort.” With more than 25 years of experience, Varner focuses on solutions for base building construction, build-to-suits, and mixed-use projects.

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