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DUSP professor comments on driverless cars

Date: 11/21/2015
Link: www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/11/07/driverless-cars-wayne-state-professor/75333094/

DUSP professor, Rayman Mohamed, recently penned a commentary in the Detroit Free Press on the disruptions likely from driverless cars.

There’s an emerging consensus that America’s cities are poised for revitalization and repopulation. Arguments vary as to why this is the case: Higher gasoline prices will make suburban and exurban living too expensive, today’s young people prefer urban amenities, and older, retired people seek the convenience of large cities.

These arguments ignore the disruptive effects of evolving technologies that will make driving less expensive, which will perpetuate, even expand, a suburban lifestyle. Of course, we notice higher gasoline prices because they affect us on a daily basis. But the underlying trend is toward less expensive transportation, even as the price of gasoline rises. More efficient cars, hybrid cars, and electric cars make this inevitable. These technological changes will reduce the number of cars we need, even as they encourage us to drive more and sprawl more.

But it may be the driverless car that will have the most pronounced impact on the way we live.

A family with three cars will be able to get by with two or maybe even one, depending on their work and school schedules. White-collar workers will benefit from being able to work on the way to and from their jobs, allowing them to live in distant suburbs. The car could take one spouse to work and return home for the other. For all families, getting the kid to soccer at 6 p.m. would be done automatically. The days of ordering a Zipcar from your smartphone and having it turn up at your door 15 minutes later will eventually come. The result will be more “driving” even as fewer people own cars.

The form of our transportation infrastructure will change. It makes more sense to send a driverless, high-efficiency car home than to pay for parking downtown. Or the car could scan for free available parking a few miles away. Parking needs for shopping will also decrease. Commercial, industrial, and office parks will occupy a smaller footprint. The result will be more compact places of employment but more sprawled residential homes.

Imagine shopping in such an environment. Delivery costs for online purchases will fall. You will be able to order something online at 11 p.m. and send your car to pick up the order. Special drive-through windows will pop up at big-box stores to facilitate such transactions. If Amazon.com wishes to stay competitive, it will have to build more warehouses to accommodate this kind of shopping.

Policy makers need to think about the implications of these transportation technologies. The ultimate conundrum is how to build and maintain the additional roads needed for a smaller pool of cars that brings in less money in gas taxes and registration fees, while also providing public transportation for the poor and that portion of the population that wishes to live in downtowns. Indeed, we see this tension being played out in southeast Michigan as we build the M-1 line to connect downtown Detroit and Midtown, while struggling to find revenues to maintain roads in the suburbs and exurbs.

There are also environmental challenges. While many tout the environmental benefits of hybrid and electric cars, we may be exchanging one environmental problem for another. Carbon emissions will be lowered, but the rural environment and habitat for wildlife will be further degraded as sprawl continues. A carbon tax will have muted effects on consumers’ travel because they will be buying less gas. To protect the rural environment and to provide funding for roads, policy makers will have to start thinking about fees based on the use of roads.

The cost and time efficiencies of tomorrow’s cars will make today’s challenges of funding transportation infrastructure seem like a piece of cake.

Rayman Mohamed is an associate professor at Wayne State University’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning