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Driverless Cars and Sprawl

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I have a lot of issues with driverless cars, primarily that they are being developed to throw millions of people out of work. With driving pretty much the last decently paid working class job that employs huge numbers of Americans, these cars may have a social benefit, but they also come with a huge economic problem that the proponents of supporters of them simply handwave away. The U.S. trucking industry alone employs 8 million people and that doesn’t count the many other driving jobs that will be erased, from forklifts to taxis.

At least according to one researcher, the widespread ownership of driverless cars may also lead to vastly more urban sprawl, presumably because people will be more comfortable living far away from work if they aren’t having to do the driving.

Autonomous vehicles promise a future in which passengers are free to use their time productively (working, for example). And they can park themselves (or be part of a shared pool) which saves yet more time in the morning rush. Coupled with faster journey times, the incentives to live further out of town will increase significantly.

There are both push and pull factors at work here: sky-high residential prices in most cities push people away from urban centres while healthy environments and green living pull people towards the hinterlands. The limiting factor in suburban spread is often travel time, either by public or private means. Driverless cars fundamentally alter the equation.

Existing planning policies are based on our current transport systems. Green-belts, for example, are designed to reduce urban sprawl by restricting development within a buffer zone around an urban area. However, the reduced transport times offered by driverless cars make it easier to live outside the belt while still working inside. So these loops of green are in danger of becoming a thin layer in a sandwich of ever-spreading suburbanisation.

Natural habitats being lost entirely or splintered into ever-smaller fragments have long been understood as some of the primary causes of species extinctions across the world. Renewed urban sprawl threatens to increase the magnitude of both habitat loss and fragmentation. These threats are well known among conservationists, but there are differences of opinion on how best to respond.

For example, eco-modernists advocate a strategy of “land-sparing”, whereby human activities are concentrated into urban areas and vast tracts of land are set aside for nature. There are many cultural and ethical problems inherent in herding humans into cities, but the near-term planning issues posed by autonomous vehicles will exacerbate the challenge given they will boost demand to live in “unspared” lands.

Alternatively, some conservationists advocate “land-sharing”, in which human communities redesign the way we farm and live so as to co-exist with wildlife, cheek-by-jowl. Autonomous vehicles pose significant challenges for either approach, by supercharging the fragmentary effect of road systems.

Whichever approach is taken, we’ll need to redesign existing systems and policies to take account of the increased range that driverless transport facilitates. This may involve new zoning laws to protect wider areas of countryside than at present. It certainly requires further development of green infrastructure, habitat corridors and “greenways”.

I had never really thought about this issue around driverless cars before. If it is easier to drive and faster, then it probably will lead to much more sprawl. I would warn anyone who thinks that not having to actually drive to work is going to free up their time that their employers are going to do everything possible to claim that time from you.

Generally, I think that driverless cars cause as many problems as they solve, as do most technologies. They aren’t going to lead to some brave new world. I urge anyone who is excited about driverless cars to articulate solutions to both the unemployment and the urban planning problems they will cause.

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