This is the second in a series of columns looking to the future of Chapel Hill, discussing emerging trends, and considering issues that Chapel Hill is currently or soon will be facing.
I was at a meeting last spring where discussion focused on traffic congestion and delays. Someone offered the thought that our traffic problems in the future are going to be greatly diminished by increasing use of self-driving cars (also called driverless cars and autonomous vehicles).
Use of these vehicles, he said, will increase the capacity of our existing streets to carry traffic, decrease travel times, and increase safety. People in the room looked at him as if he were crazy.
He is not. Are you ready to expand your thinking about the future of transportation in Chapel Hill?
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Looking ahead 25-plus years, driverless vehicles will be commonplace. One possible scenario has us traveling in vehicles that resemble small offices – complete with desk chair, computer and telephone. Imagine leaving your home in the morning and stepping into one of these vehicles as if you had just stepped into your office. Imagine turning your commuting time into productive work time
What will be here sooner is the opportunity to take a self-driving car to dinner, to work, or to the airport, and have it come pick you up when you are ready. This scenario is not that far off. Plan on being able to buy a self-driving car in five or six years.
There are benefits to accompany the proliferation of self-driving vehicles: fewer accidents, fewer car-related injuries, and fewer crash fatalities. Air pollution? Driverless cars are already showing that they are more fuel efficient and less polluting than cars with drivers. Increasing access and mobility? Elderly, disabled, and sight-impaired individuals will experience huge increases in opportunities to get around.
One problem area still being addressed is liability. If a vehicle has no driver and there is an accident, whose fault is it? Who is responsible for assuring that the vehicle is safe? Those are details to be worked out.
What are some of the related effects we should anticipate?
Start with parking. There will be significantly less need for parking spaces in a world where your car drops you off. And there may be pressures for changes in land-use patterns. It is likely that driverless cars, particularly the ones that might resemble small offices, will make it easier to have longer commuting distances. Self-driving cars could encourage sprawl in land use preferences.
Transit? We will always want buses running along Chapel Hill’s main corridors to carry large volumes of passengers. But consider the deceased operating costs and increases in service and accessibility if, for areas farther out or not on major corridors, there existed the possibility of driverless cars to replace bus routes.
When will we begin to see self-driving cars on Chapel Hill streets? Are they coming? Yes, and sooner than you think. Four states and the District of Columbia have already adjusted legislation to authorize the testing of self-driving cars on public streets.
Anticipated impacts include narrower streets, fewer parking lots, and more free-flowing vehicle movements. Once the technology proves itself to be safe and desirable, and once the legal issues are resolved, we will be off and running. Another change that is coming to our community.
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