Imagine if you could call for your car to drop you off at work and then come pick you back up later.  While in the car you could do work, watch the news on the way home, or perhaps jump onto one last conference call without having to worry about driving at the same time.  The car could pick up the kids along the way, then drop you off at the grocery store before continuing on its way home to drop them off, then return to pick you up.  The car would be able to do this automatically, without a driver.

Autonomous vehicles are coming sooner than you think, as noted by Patrick Sisson’s fantastic article over at Curbed summarizing the state of the autonomous vehicles – a must read.

A couple of years ago, I had a heated discussion at a sustainability networking meeting about the California High Speed Rail and whether it would be obsolete as soon as it opened with the eventual rise of driverless cars. At the time the promise of driver-less technologies seemed too far-fetched  – well beyond the norm of what an average person would tolerate. Besides, Southern California is the ultimate symbol of car culture, something anyone sitting in an outdoor cafe in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, or even Brand Boulevard in Glendale can attest.

Shiny, modified cars with real estate-worthy price tags roar past onlookers, each a symbol of success and power.  But after reading the Curbed post, I have to admit, the promise and ease of autonomous vehicles may actually convince Angelenos to give up driving.

Self-driving cars would be a revolution for Los Angeles. Driverless vehicles would not only change in the way Angelenos think about transportation – it would change the way we live.  Here’s how:

Reduced traffic:  I’ve said it before – we have the worst traffic in the country. Autonomous vehicles would be able to drive much closer together at a steady speed, reducing stop-and-go traffic.  Automated cars would essentially become a single entity moving throughout the city, picking the best routes and lining up orderly to get to each of their destinations.

Thanksgiving traffic on the 405 that went viral.

A reduction in pollution: Moving vehicles produce less air pollution. Coupled with electric (you could send your car to a charger when you don’t need it!) or hybrid technology, emissions due to vehicles could become virtually non-existent.

Economic relief: The Federal poverty-level income for a family of four is $24,600/year.  An average car costs about $8,000 to own, including repairs, insurance, and fuel. This means a family at the poverty level might be paying as much as 1/3 of their income for their car. Los Angeles is designed to necessitate at least one car for nearly every household of its citizenry.  Autonomous vehicles can be easily shared and rented, vastly reducing the ownership cost for low income households.

Reduce fatalities: There were 32,675 car-related deaths in the United States in 2015. This is about the same as the entire student body at the University of California, Davis, my alma mater. Driverless cars have the possibility of being much safer by taking control of the vehicle away from flawed human decision making.

Promote urban renewal: Think about how much space we allocate for our cars.  We have the 2 car garage at home, plus the parking space for where we work.  We have parking spaces at every store, school, and business we frequent. Our streets and freeways are wide. If we sent our car home after it dropped us off at work, we would not need the parking space at work.  We would not need as many lanes on our streets because the cars would take up space more efficiently. Suddenly, high density housing wouldn’t seem so bad. Pedestrians and bikes would have more room. Parking garages in our economic centers could be torn down for living spaces, new businesses, or for communal open spaces. Think about how different our cities would look and feel freed from the shackles of car parking.

Reduce the Heat Island Effect: Less road and more open space means a cooler city. All of the asphalt and concrete we dedicate to driving and parking our cars is responsible for our cities heating up.

Provides safe transportation for an aging population: In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to reach 83.7 million – almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012.  I don’t know about you, but my mom really should have stopped driving at 70 instead of 82.  However, with a desire to remain active, what choice did she really have? Maybe my wife and I will have a choice of buying or using an autonomous vehicle in the twilight of our lives.

As we densify here in Los Angeles, every argument in every community meeting about development will begin and end with conversations about parking and traffic. We will spend our time and money debating, voting, and pointing fingers at each other over car transportation. However, I believe eventually we’ll need to admit to an addiction to the automobile. We spend too much money on cars and the infrastructure supporting its use.

The promise of an autonomous vehicle society will shift the paradigm away from this addiction and move us toward a more sustainable future.  I say we try it.

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