Autonomous Vehicles Zoom into Public Imagination in 2016

From my vantage point as APA Research Director, one of the top planning stories of 2016 has been the explosion of interest in autonomous vehicles (AVs) as the next big transportation trend.

While private companies such as Google and Uber move forward with research, development, and pilot applications, and agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration focus on deployment and safety issues, guidance is lacking on how communities can prepare for the impacts of this transformative new technology. This creates significant challenges for the planning profession, as well as opportunities for planners to step up and provide leadership in addressing the coming effects of AVs on cities and regions.

In a study prepared for the Florida Department of Transportation, a Florida State University research team led by Tim Chapin asserts that "AV technology has the potential to transform transportation systems and land use patterns to a level not seen since the mass production of the private automobile roughly a century ago."

The study identifies six changes to the built environment that may result from adoption of the technology, ranging from the potential for narrower and more efficient rights-of-way to redevelopment opportunities resulting from reduced parking demand. While these changes could support more walkable, livable communities, policies and implementation strategies must be put in place to make this potential outcome a reality.

For example, the study notes that AVs could either help or hinder bicyclists and pedestrians. And there are many unanswered questions beyond the scope of this particular study.

For example: How will AVs impact regional development patterns? Will underserved and disadvantaged populations be left behind by a technology that benefits more affluent segments of society? How will public transit be affected?

Another critical issue is how widespread deployment of AVs might impact energy usage and fossil fuel emissions by vehicles.

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that energy use could decrease by as much as 90 percent and increase by as much as 250 percent, depending on the variables used in eight different scenarios. While these variables included private vs. shared ownership of AVs, the scenarios did not include the possibility of a high number of privately owned AVs (as opposed to predominantly shared ownership). I believe that this possibility could significantly increase vehicle miles traveled and associated energy use, with ancillary effects on bike/ped travel, transit usage, and regional development patterns (although there is no clear evidence that AVs will induce sprawl).

In a session I moderated on "Planning for Autonomous Vehicles" during Smart Cities Week in D.C., Creighton Randall of the Shared-Use Mobility Center painted two contrasting visions of a future AV world based on vehicle ownership. In the "dystopic" vision, private ownership and a proliferation of "zero occupancy vehicles" lead to "more cars and traffic, more pollution, and more sprawl." In the "utopian, shared autonomy" vision, shared ownership leads to "fewer cars, reduced congestion, cleaner air, and better land use."

How can planners help realize the potential benefits and minimize the costs of AV technology?

Although projections of AV deployment vary widely, it is likely still years away from widespread commercial adoption, so there is time to prepare. The bad news is that technological change often happens more quickly than anticipated, auto makers are already incorporating automated features into their current models, and long-range planning is just starting to consider the technology.

Erik Guerra of the University of Pennsylvania interviewed planners at the nation's 25 largest metropolitan planning organizations on the extent to which they are preparing for the advent of AVs. He concludes in a Journal of Planning Education and Research article that, while regional planners are keenly aware of the need, "uncertainties about the new technology and its relationship to daily investment decisions have kept mention of self-driving cars out of nearly all long-range transportation plans."

Guerra further contends that, "despite a history of and purported focus on projecting and planning for the future, the planning profession has a somewhat poor track record of preparing for new transportation technologies."

My planning wish list for 2017 includes our profession leading the way in preparing cities and regions for the next new transportation technology: self-driving cars.

Top image: Uber's self-driving car in Pittsburgh. Photo by Flickr user Foo Conner (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

About the Author
David Rouse, FAICP, is the director of research and advisory services at APA. He may be reached at

December 27, 2016

By David Rouse, FAICP