Car News

Driverless cars will change the face of our cities

Architect David Homberg says driverless cars will totally change the urban landscape with roads and parking spaces, and even car ownership all likely to be “disrupted”.

ONE OF THE MOST THOUGHT-PROVOKING presentations at the International Driverless Cars Conference in Adelaide (5-6 November) was made by David Homburg, president of the SA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects and Adelaide-based principal of global design practice HASSELL.

Some of the delegates were initially wondering what an architect had to bring to the discussion about driverless cars but Mr Homburg’s presentation quickly made it clear that driverless cars will mean a radical re-think about how cities are designed and configured.

Mr Homburg made the point that driverless cars or autonomous vehicles will be one of those technologies that bring about major disruption to the way we have always done things – “a game changer in terms of urban form”.

Cities are very much shaped by their transport networks – you only have to look at the spaghetti junctions of freeway on- and off- ramps, roads slashing through neighborhoods and the increasing proliferation of traffic control systems. “The car has dominated everything we do, from strategic planning through to the types of houses we build,” observes Mr Homburg. “So it’s a pretty safe bet that when driverless car technologies are fully developed, our cities will never look the same again. What we don’t know yet is how they will evolve, but we can speculate.”

The first defining factor will be whether people will continue to own their own car, even if it’s a driverless model. In this case, changes will be incremental. However, the more probable alternative of most people choosing not to own cars and instead accessing transport through a pool of autonomous vehicles and this will bring about a more significant change.

Autonomous cars will have the ability to travel closer to each other than cars piloted by accident-prone human beings. That will mean less space is required, and more vehicles will be able to occupy the space on existing roads. In turn, the need to make ongoing heavy investment in road infrastructure may be reduced. Car parks will almost immediately be able to accommodate more vehicles (because autonomous cars are able to park much closer together, and passengers can alight before they park). Ideally, autonomous cars will drop passengers at their destination and then self-transport themselves to their parking point where they will park themselves.

The existing concept of a shopping centre located in a huge parking lot will be relegated to history as car parking can be located at the rear of the centre, with a drop-off zone located conveniently close to entrances and exits.

Ever since the advent of the motor car, homes have been designed and built to make allowances for them. At its worst, street frontages were little more than a couple of garage doors and a front door (and even this door was virtually redundant as people entered via the garage). In the future, autonomous cars will drop off at the front door or some other convenient location and then take themselves off to a parking area away from the house.

Cycling will be more approachable for more people as the autonomous vehicles use sensor technology to make collisions between cycle and vehicle almost unknown. Town planners will be able to design a network of cycle routes without having to take into account the existing car infrastructure or the conflict between cycles and heavier road traffic.

The real changes will come about when people no longer see a need to own their own cars.

Car pools could be established at central locations and called up using an app, in much the same way we now hire a taxi using a smartphone. Suddenly, the private garage is no longer relevant, freeing up space on suburban blocks of land and under apartment buildings and office buildings.

Shopping centres will no longer need to provide parking. Instead, they will provide spaces for autonomous vehicles to drop off and collect shoppers. When you wish to leave, you call a car, or it could even be done automatically as you pass through the checkout. With the need for parking eliminated, the High St shopping strip could undergo a revival.

The current preoccupation with light and heavy rail networks in cities such as Adelaide may become a moot point because far better outcomes could be achieved through a driverless car and bus network.

One upside of driverless cars is that time currently spent driving can be used more productively. Imagine being able to read a newspaper (assuming such things still exist!), watch a DVD, work on a computer. The car can effectively become an extension of the living room, or a mobile office. The corollary to this, however, is that removing the disadvantages of a long commute could encourage even more urban sprawl.

Mr Homburg warns that we need to respond to this new mode of transport by properly investigating the implications before we progress to the “point of no return”. As he warns, it is far too easy to be fascinated by the technology without thinking through the urban implications, as we did when we removed trams and light rail from so many cities.

As he says, we can do this through a combination of design-led visioning and serious computer modelling. “We already have 3D computer models of the urban environment. We already have sophisticated engineering models of traffic flows and movements. And through gaming technologies we can rapidly test and visualise the outcomes in an easily understood manner.”

Mr Homburg is calling for the establishment of a unit within the Office of Design and Architecture SA to properly model and guide the urban implications. “With the new Development Act being debated and legislation in place enabling the technology to be trialled, now is the time to invest,” he says. “It might sound expensive, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than trying to re-establish a tram network.”

This article was prepared using David Homburg’s presentation on Day 1 of the International Driverless Cars Conference and a subsequent article he wrote for InDaily (12 November 2015).

Paul Murrell

Paul Murrell

Paul’s mother knew he was a car nut when, aged three, he could identify oncoming cars from their engine note alone. By 10, he had decided what his first car would be and begun negotiations with a bank to arrange finance, the first of many expensive automotive mistakes. These days, he is happy to drive other people’s cars (on the road, off the road or on the track) and write up what’s good about them and what isn’t.