Self-driving cars, Part II

From the comments section of my June 17th update on Self-Driving Cars, David writes:

Regarding Level 7, my guess is: a lot more downtown pedestrian-only streets, parking garages replaced by housing/commercial space, and for individual parking spaces, parklets. (

I’m really curious to see what happens with suburbs / sprawl. Any predictions for how that will change?

And in a GChat message to me, Kevin writes:[ref]Abridged for clarity.[/ref]

I think the other side of the safety element is that cars themselves have gone leaps and bounds with safety – look at modern supercar technology. Carbon fiber cockpits have people walking away from driving like dumbasses now. How much revolt will there be to that increased perception of safety, though? Will I still have to deal with dumbasses driving 120 on the highway and clipping me? Will I not be wearing a seatbelt? Would that kill me? Will this be seatbelts 2.0 (as in, fatalities remained relatively consistent after seatbelts because people felt safer and drove more recklessly)?

What about private ownership? How can I show off what a rich [consummate gentleman] I am and rub it in everyone’s faces? Do I get to house my private vehicle somewhere (in some big warehouse?) and then summon it when I want? Or do I have to use the same utilitarian pod as everyone else?

Sure, David, Kevin. Great thoughts.

We agree that housing is going to be a huge need and a likely solution for the larger spaces vacated by parking spots.

As for Parklets: Beautiful, sure. But installed across close to 21 square miles? Eep. I wonder if there’s a more practical purpose, you know?

I’d be interested to think about the sorts of microbusinesses which might move into abandoned parking spaces. We’ve seen from the food truck phenomenon that certain types of food services can get away with smaller footprints. Suppose we moved all of the coffee shops and lunch places into parklet-sized spaces and opened up those larger real estate footprints for housing and similar?

As for suburbs/sprawl: I actually think Mumbai is a fairly interesting metaphor for the future of city transportation. Cabs there are prolific, and in my experience never cost more than $1-$2 USD to take you 30-45 minutes across the city. (And that I’m assuming is after they applied a modest “foreigner” tax.)

As for rich/ownership: It’s worth noting that plenty of families in Mumbai & India still buy cars. It’s a significant point of pride, and an important display of wealth/status/success in a society that’s still today profoundly marked by the effects of the caste system. A fair estimate: I think we’ll see the same proportion of people owning private cars in the future as you see people owning private airplanes today.

As for safety: Knowing absolutely nothing about car mechanics, my guess is that cockpits become substantially safer once automakers can eliminate all the human interface components (steering wheel, pedals, etc.) and re-purpose that space for safety, and also, build cars which are more symmetrical. I anticipate seatbelts will still be necessary — you still wear your seatbelt on airplanes. Though in a perfect world, cars might be as predictable as trains — where there’s no belts usually, I think.

As for effects on suburbs: We’re actually also already seeing some of the effects of Sprawl in SF. Here’s a tech company specifically designed to deal with the commute associated with the sprawl, which also bears resemblance to the door-to-door service I’d described in my earlier post.

Two of the less straightforward self-driving car side-effects:

First: Residential real estate in downtown urban areas becomes much less of a premium good. Prices will still go up – real estate prices, as I understand things, will pretty much always go up – because our population is growing wildly.

Second: Anita Elberse’s Blockbuster effect on entertainment / destination real estate. If you thought getting into clubs like Marquee was hard today, think about how the lines will look once everybody in a 40 (80?) mile radius has easy, cheap access every single night. Everyone will want to flock to the blockbuster venues because they can. This might sadly be devastating for midlevel or rural venues which once thrived because, hey, where else are you going to go when you live in Huntington, NY, and you need to be able to get yourself home affordably once last call has been called?

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