This week, Alphabet Inc. subsidiary Waymo got the green light to test its driverless vehicles in California, an expansion of the program currently underway in Arizona. Waymo’s minivans will be driving in a swath of Silicon Valley around its headquarters, an area the company says it knows well. If Waymo and other driverless-car operators expand into denser urban areas, it could mean more traffic. It could also mean a different engagement with an urban landscape built for passenger vehicles. We can find hints of both north of Waymo’s California testing grounds, in San Francisco.A report published in October by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority points the finger at the services offered by companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. as major causes of worsening traffic. From 2010 to 2016, ride-hailing services accounted for 51 percent of the increase in daily delays, 47 percent of the increase in vehicle miles traveled, and 55 percent of the average decline in speed on roadways — while adding an estimated 25 percent of total vehicle congestion.
Adding driverless vehicles to this dynamic wouldn’t help much, and it could certainly worsen it. Driverless vehicles might be better drivers than human drivers (eventually), but if they are just adding to traffic, they won’t help with delays or congestion. Even a theoretically perfect driverless car on the way to pick up a passenger is still an empty vehicle adding to traffic.
That’s where another announcement out of San Francisco is intriguing. Jim McPherson of Safe Self Drive brought the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s latest news to everyone’s attention. The agency will provide “garage ambassadors” to patrons wanting to be accompanied to their vehicles in its 19 city garages. McPherson’s first take is that it could be a step toward making public garages service-oriented places, with parking, off-street pickups, charging stations, parking space for smaller vehicles like scooters and bicycles, and even restaurants.
Today, the average car is parked 95% of the time, with only 5% on-the-road time. An IBM survey reported that, worldwide, urban drivers spend an average of 20 minutes per trip looking for parking, and a University of California study found that the United States has close to a billion parking spots. This means there are roughly 4 times more parking spaces than vehicles.
As driverless technology continues to improve, so does parking. In the next 5–10 years, parking as we know it will be completely redefined just as cars will be. Without the need for drivers, cars can be managed by robots in high-efficiency spaces that aren’t a blight on the urban landscape, and don’t require customer stairs, elevators, and wide alleyways to allow access to individual cars. Some predict that 15 years from now, autonomous vehicles will have erased the need for up to 90 % of our current lots. Last year, Audi launched an automated parking garage for self-driving cars near Boston, “where space for vehicles would be reduced by two square meters per car, with driving lanes becoming narrower, and staircases and elevators no longer needed.”