Solving Cities

Will Google's self-driving car lead to more sprawl?

Posting in Cities

Google's self-driving car is cool, but will it lead to more sprawl? Or is it a worry for another day?

Google's self-driving car is amazing.

It's has driven more than 140,000 miles with only one accident. And as Sebastian Thrun, one of the builders of Google's self-driving car, explains in his TED talk, the self-driving car would could make cars more safe and make commuting by car much less of a headache.

But will this science fiction-to-reality success story lead to some unintended consequences?

Writing for Fast Company, Greg Lindsay, author of Aerotropolis (read his interview with SmartPlanet here), paints the picture of how driverless cars could lead to suburban sprawl.

Driverless cars would be a perfect match for car-sharing services such as Zipcar or Getaround, gradually replacing the idea of car ownership with “mobility-as-a-service.” That, in turn, may lead to a precipitous fall in car ownership--as high as 50%--while breathing new life into suburbia and creating more congestions as the pain of commuting lessens.

...

What if you could watch movies, make Skype calls, or play with your children in the back seat until you were delivered to your doorstep? A game-changer in terms of commuting time and cost, it would breathe new life back into suburban sprawl; it's not a problem to live two hours from work when you can spend those two hours as if you were on your couch.

Maybe Lindsay's getting ahead of himself. But it's easy to see how the intrigue and ease of using a self-driving car could create the perfect storm that could lead to a new generation of sprawling suburbs. Using a car would be easier than it is now if self-driving cars were linked with programs like Zipcar-- you wouldn't need to worry about maintenance, insurance, and all the other hassles of car-ownership. Plus, commuting in a car might actually be a pleasant experience.

But, really, it's a worry for another day. Because meanwhile there are 250 million personal vehicle in the U.S. today. And everyday they're embarking on a commute that is killing them. The reality is, people who want to live in the suburbs will live there whether commuting is easy or not. And people who want to live in walkable, dense community will live there even if commuting in a car is easier. If nothing else, I can't imagine that Google's self-driving car would make sprawl any worse than it is today.

Photo: Daquella manera/Flickr

Share this

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure