Driverless Cars Will Transform Things You Never Expected

Nine Ways Life Will Change When Automated Vehicles Become a Reality

May 18, 2016

Managing Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a four-part series about the impact of driverless cars on design and planning. On Monday, Alan Mountjoy reported how BMW is planning for a disruptive future; on Tuesday, Donald Bellefeuille wrote about the health opportunities afforded by autonomous vehicles. On Thursday, Alex Krieger looked at the potential downside of increased congestion.


We are on the threshold of a once-in-a-century shift in the nature of cities, as driverless cars take off and car-sharing programs continue to expand. We asked several designers at NBBJ to predict how driverless cars will transform our cities, and here is what they had to say:



People think they are going to buy a driverless car. The reality is they will be buying a service and not an actual car. The service will be like Uber but without the driver. GM just invested $500 million into Lyft. The idea is GM builds cars and you pay GM for a car to come pick you up. No parking needed, and the car just keeps going. Think of a service where you fly to Denver, get out, and a car picks you up and you don’t rent a car. Worldwide service. Perhaps that’s why my daughter said she does not want to learn to drive. She is almost 10. In the six more years it will take to get this up and running, she might just get her wish. Pretty cool.

Dan Ayars, architect


Valet Pick-up

With drivers — Uber, taxis, food deliveries — the car arrives before we get away from our desks and down to the curb. So imagine queues of driverless cars all lining up at 5:00 to pick up employees at the end of the day. The cars would still need on-street parking spaces or off-street valet areas to queue. If they are shared vehicles, then maybe less space is necessary, because my colleague takes the first car and I get the next one — but if I own my driverless vehicle, then I will care which one I get! If that space isn’t curbside, it’s in the first level of a parking garage or in a well-designed alley. Either way I still anticipate queueing and congestion.

Kim Selby, planner and urban designer


Affordable Housing

One UC Berkeley study found that every shared car, like a Car2Go, removes nine to 13 vehicles from the road. In an above-grade urban parking structure, imagine what could be done with 12 out of every 13 parking stalls! Millions of square feet of valuable space, already built within our cities, will become available as a platform for affordable housing.

The problem with affordable housing is that no one can afford to build it. But parking structures are already built, so the cost of constructing the primary structure is already accounted for. These are high-quality concrete structures, and we all know how popular it is to repurpose existing buildings into housing. Affordable housing is something most cities are struggling with, but if they suddenly had this massive, found resource? That’s when affordable housing becomes affordable.

Steve McConnell, architect


Adaptable Garages

We need to start designing buildings that can transform themselves when the evolution to driverless cars occurs. The parking structure itself requires new design solutions. If we begin to institute flat-plate floor layouts with higher floor-to-floor dimensions, garages can be transitioned to creative office space, loft residential units, unique retail destinations or even boutique hotel designs in the future, when the demand for parking decreases.

We should also look at mechanical parking solutions that separate the driver from the automobile upon entry. This would result in less built space for parking and ease the transition to other uses, but so far the cost of mechanical systems is difficult to rationalize and, more importantly, the time required for car retrieval is burdensome. Regardless, we need to address innovative planning and parking solutions today, with an eye on the future, to allow us to move quickly to accommodate coming trends in urban living.

Rick Poulos, architect


Public Transit

One concern about driverless cars is whether public transportation will benefit. Equitable access to jobs and services by means of public transit is one of the most important things the city does, yet many cities are seeing a drop in the use of public transportation with the advent of Uber, Car2Go and similar services.

Having said that, public transit agencies that implement driverless buses will save a lot of money on both labor and, potentially, bus storage costs. Services like van pools for seniors and others with mobility problems could become more cost-effective as well. These savings should be reinvested in research, infrastructure and design to improve public transit.

Cities could also charge a congestion fee for single-occupancy driverless cars entering the city center (London and some other cities charge similar fees now). The money generated from this would go towards funding public transit, and it would create a less congested inner city to make that public transit more efficient; this isn’t even contingent on driverless cars, but could incentivize people to take transit today. Regardless, cities need to join the conversation around driverless vehicles now, so this new service doesn’t just benefit the wealthy.

Amy Taylor, urban planner



The primary source of air pollution caused by automobiles is the particulate matter (very fine dust and debris, including particles of tires and brake pads) they throw into the atmosphere while traveling on both paved and unpaved roads. Cleaner air standards have helped mitigate the air pollution caused by exhaust fumes, but particulates still remain a primary source of air pollution, especially in urbanized areas like Tucson, where inversion layers are a major factor. So it’s safe to say that driverless cars, even if electrically powered, will still contribute to air quality problems to some degree.

Keith Walzak, urban designer and planner


The Power Grid

To be truly marketable on a mass scale, driverless EVs will require us to rethink our existing infrastructure to account for more frequent and accessible recharging stations. Our cities will experience greater demand by EVs not only at the home, but at the job and every location in between: airports, passenger ferry terminals, churches, stadiums, shopping outlets, national parks, vacation resorts and more. The grid system as we know it today will demand more transmission facilities and upgrades to existing substations at the district level, in order to account for more power-surge requirements at peak periods at the local level.

Couple this expanded demand with new renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics, solar thermal heating, wind power and geothermal, and the future energy model will likely require expanded energy fields, in addition to an increase in local and district-level distribution infrastructure. How we plan for this new grid system, as our cities grow taller and more dense, will be a question for city planners, utility providers and land owners alike.

Keith Walzak, urban designer and planner


Car Culture

American society is so automobile-oriented, with status, image, fashion, machismo, control, speed and independence wrapped up in car ownership. An automobile is a mechanical extension of oneself. The space within it is the driver’s personal space, and the manner in which it is driven is an outward expression of each driver’s personality and, often, of masculine power: revving engine, squealing tires, laying on the horn, hard stops.

Driverless cars would largely take this “power” away, making our automobile culture less aggressive, more civil and more polite. They would create an orderly transportation network where every vehicle maintains its own space (no tailgating, no cutting another vehicle off), operates at mundane, optimal speed and efficiency (no revving, no jackrabbit starts, no wheel-squealing), and delivers its passengers benignly to their destination. Driverless cars, by turning power and control over to the machine, would “emasculate” the culture of driving. Probably for the better.

But what about those who continue to drive human-controlled vehicles? When they know that autonomous vehicles will respond safely and without resentment, will they drive more aggressively? What traffic laws, if any, will be necessary to keep aggressive drivers from taking advantage of a newly safe, efficient, emotionless transportation network?

Kim Way, urban designer and planner



As a parent, would I put my middle-school student in a driverless car and send her off to soccer practice by herself — one less chore for me to do after work? I’m not ready to allow her to go anywhere unattended in a driverless car, for many reasons. What would she do if an accident happened? (And they have, already.) What if it was possible for her to redirect the car and go somewhere else? Who chaperones her arrival, the soccer coach?

And that’s just with older kids. Until they are eight years old (in Washington State, anyway), how do you deal with car seats and booster seats, strollers and kid paraphernalia in shared, driverless cars? You would have to carry everything with you before the car drove away. Many of these devices can be quite bulky — they would have to be redesigned, or offices, shopping centers, restaurants, etc. that cater to families would need to provide storage areas on-site. Did we just replace the need for a parking stall with lockers?

Kim Selby, planner, urban designer, parent


Image courtesy of Pexels.

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