A driverless city, anyone?



Let’s face it. Buzz words such as smart cities and technologies, green urbanism, blue-green infrastructure, sustainable urban development, transformation of city structures, carless society, smart farming in urban areas, and the like, have been spreading like virus among experts, academics, as well as practitioners, who are involved in activities to save our planet. An international seminar on “Designing Future Cities: Sustainable Urban Development and Transformation of City Structures” recently held in Beijing dealt with the aforementioned topics. This international gathering of experts and academics was held at the Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Urban Planning and Design Institute, in cooperation with the Technical University Berlin and the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) of Germany.

What merits serious attention and discussion is the driverless city project pioneered by Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, USA, led by an excellent team, each with specific areas of expertise in transportation engineering and computational modeling, urban informatics and sociology, landscape architecture and infrastructure design, and planning law and policy advisor.

Indeed, driverless cars are here! Car automation has already entered the marketplace and we should expect autonomous cars to be market ready in the next decade. Following the US experience, Millennials are buying 30 percent less cars than their parents.

Meanwhile, Uber, a ride-sharing company (now becoming popular in the Philippines), has launched driverless taxis in Pittsburgh. As car ownership is replaced by ride-sharing, the potential of an autonomous transportation system swells, and the city becomes the clear incubator for the technology. The automotive and tech industries are already investing vast resources in developing autonomous vehicles for the market. The above project, proponents say, will develop human-centered design guidelines for envisioning, prototyping and building the Driverless City of tomorrow.

Driverless cars create the potential opportunity for safer, greener, smarter and more efficient cities. Sounds like the classical battle cry of environmentalists. But, at the same time, there are also a number of issues involved, including their ability to sense human drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists that share the use of streets, as well as the ways in which they will reconfigure how we live and work. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how these can change our lives. What if cars don’t crash? What if they are shared? What if they don’t need to park? What if they can think? Currently, due to advanced sensing, communication and computation capabilities, driverless cars promise major possibilities. Proponents say the project will be positioned to provide social scenarios, technical solutions, infrastructural prototypes, and infrastructure design guidelines. Specifically, there is a lot of important potential to improvements to urban life, including the revitalization of streets as social space, higher ecological performance of infrastructure, safety improvements, transportation efficiency, recovery of underused real estate, and more beautiful civic environments.

If we look at the evolution and developments in transportation and communication technologies, they have had a great impact on cities because they have led to new forms of physical infrastructure and enabled the expansion of urban environments. This has been true at least since the Romans built roads for their imperial expansion.

After the industrial revolution that started in Europe, trains, elevators, automobiles and planes have allowed massive transformations in the scale and density of cities. However, these impacts are often multi-directional and difficult to predict. At the metropolitan scale, the possibility of longer commutes at higher speeds could contribute to urban decentralization—a welcome relief for high-density cities around the world. The precision of digitally controlled vehicles could also allow reductions in street width. Parking lanes, lots, and garages could be eliminated from many urban areas as driverless cars either stay in circulation or direct themselves to remote parking installations. The resulting reduction of paved areas could reduce run-offs and urban heat island issues. This could trigger corresponding changes in street design, parking lot and fuel station distribution, or traffic intersection design—all of which impact urban land use.

How do the proponents intend to carry out the project until its full implementation and execution? The promoters realize that rather than pursuing top-down, technologically deterministic strategies, this team of experts will work with stakeholders that can contribute to the co-evolution of human and non-human systems. And when self-driving cars get here, they’ll make our commutes more efficient and allow us to get kids to school without disrupting mom and dad’s workdays. They’ll conserve resources, boost mobility for seniors and others who can’t, and make deadly traffic accidents disappear. It’s all great stuff, don’t you think?

Dr. Beatriz Kaamino-Tschoepke teaches at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business, De La Salle University. She handles International Business and Human Resources Management with Organizational Behavior for the MBA Program. Dr. Tschoepke is also a professional trainer in the areas of intercultural management and communication, and a consultant on business development, marketing and entrepreneurship with various multinational companies.


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