What’s driving driverless cars?

As we plan for autonomous vehicles, bear in mind that the car, not the driver, causes the demand for infrastructure.

At our Sept. 18 council work session, town planning director Ben Hitchings presented some futuristic ideas of the day when everyone owns, or at least uses, a driverless car. Our starry-eyed discussion focused only on the technology. We ignored economics and human behavior.

A slide in the PowerPoint deck listed ways life would change in an era of driverless cars. The first bullet point posited that people would get more work done, because they could work during their commute. That made me take the rest of the list with a grain of salt.

Most of us on council are old enough to remember adults telling us, “When you grow up, you’ll have so much leisure time because computers will do all the work.” That turned out to be half true. Computers are doing much of the work, and with advances in robotic process automation, they’re doing even more. Yet my generation has less free time than our parents did. As technology changes, so do work responsibilities and expectations.

Car sales remain strong as the middle class and modestly paid move farther out to find homes they can afford. Because of wage stagnation on the left side of the bell curve, they won’t be able to afford high-tech driverless cars. Our largest employers — UNC and UNC Hospitals — not to mention restaurant and retail businesses and local, state and federal government, have many employees who don’t earn much money and will rely on the most cost-effective means of transportation available.

The presentation suggested using parking lots and decks for other purposes because driverless cars would make them moot. When the modestly paid drive their cars in to work because they live beyond regular bus service or work beyond when buses run, they’ll need a place to park.

A council member said that a driverless car could drop her at work and she wouldn’t need a parking space. But that scenario would double the number of car trips clogging traffic. Recently a research team took up the question of where best to park driverless cars — a central hub or a remote area — to reduce the number of empty car trips.

People could use one driverless car to ride-share to work (names for that practice currently are called “taxi,” “Uber,” “carpool” or “bus”), but if they don’t do that now, why would they just because there is no driver? Those who can afford private vehicles are loath to give up the privacy and convenience of having their own car, driverless or not.

I admit, a lifestyle that did not require making multiple trips during my waking hours sounds so relaxing and is something I aspire to. Whether I achieve that goal won’t depend on the technology advancement of driverless cars. In the meantime, we need places to park.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 2, 2017

    These “visionary” talks should have been included in UNC/CHTC planning for DOLRT which is 20 years away. Its why DOLRT is going to be obsolete before its built.

    And as Nancy correctly concludes, for now. if you want people to shop or dine downtown now – its a good idea to give them a place to park.

    Wake County just announced that they may be replacing buses with ridesharing services like uber. Its a brilliant idea and can seriously up the game
    on public transportation. http://www.wral.com/gotriangle-could-replace-daily-shuttles-with-on-demand-service/16980483/

  2. plurimus

     /  October 2, 2017

    “Yet my generation has less free time than our parents did. As technology changes, so do work responsibilities and expectations.” Yes! Technology has a funny way of doing that (not funny haha) there is more choice with more opportunity than out parents had. Productivity has increased a lot and technology will do the same in the next generation.

    “But that scenario would double the number of car trips clogging traffic”. In theory anyway, no so. The driver less car would become available to serve other customers. The Atlantic an other publications have done pieces on the reduction in traffic and the reduction in parking needs: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/08/driverless-cars-robot-cabs-parking-traffic/400526/

    The ownership model for vehicles is changing and the big car manufacturers are already planning for it. The costs of having a car sitting in a driveway 80% of the time have become burdensome to the individual and to society. Imagine if all of the capital was freed to do other things. Imagine not owning a car because “cars on demand” fleets compete for you business and mundane chores could be run by cars by themselves without humans at all. This is the root of the sharing economy.

    Perhaps the above will never come to fruition, but most likely some version will. Yes we need parking spaces now, but plan for reuse in the future.

  3. Gerry Cohen

     /  October 7, 2017

    Nancy’s comment is excellent. The issue of where driverless cars will go if people are dropped off at work or class is critical, as would be the problems AFTER work or class if thousands tried to queue for return rides with hundreds of empty cars arriving at once on Manning Drive, Raleigh Rd, or Cameron Avenue.
    Bonnie: RTP’s current configuration is very suburban and the shuttle buses are being repurposed away from that area and will be used to expand fixed route service in other areas as the region rapidly expands bus service next year. (Being used for new routes or expanded headways). RTPs long range plan calls for more density and redevelopment with housing rather than just a suburban office park.

  4. plurimus

     /  October 8, 2017

    Congestion in general should be greatly reduced by driverless cars ability to intercommunicate. The biggest challenges in driverless vehicle adoption will be factors such as:

    Lack of a legal framework for when some, but not all, vehicles will be driverless. Huge opportunity for UNC Law.

    Resolution of insurance and liability laws. Tort laws assume driver negligence as the central issue. When there is no driver accident disputes will be much harder to resolve. Another huge opportunity for UNC Law.

    Adoption of driverless vehicles may be delayed due to consumer reluctance. However, public transit, trucking companies and car services such as Uber will adopt this tech before regular consumers. Municipalities can foster this by creating special lanes (similar to bike lanes) to segregate traffic.

    When fleet based driverless vehicles are widely adopted, they will have a huge impact on municipal parking revenue. Municipal governments are ill prepared for this. To compete, municipalities will need to accommodate staging/parking areas for driverless vehicles (like rental car lots at airports) for a cheap price within their jurisdiction.

  5. plurimus

     /  October 11, 2017


    “With the new revised regulations, California drives a bit farther down the road for autonomous vehicle testing, but it’s not alone. Singapore has already established zones for autonomous vehicle testing, and other nations are pushing to assume the pole position in the autonomous vehicle race.”