Robert Schoenberger Editor || rschoenberger@gie.net

Technology transforms our lives in ways we can never predict. Designers created cell phones to make communications more mobile. The result – hundreds of millions of people walking around with small, massively powerful computers in their pockets that can access everything from the atomic structure of aluminum to the latest cute cat video. It’s become normal for children in Ohio to play online games with children in Thailand.

Automakers are experimenting with another technology that could transform the world in untold ways – cars that can pilot themselves. We’ve run a lot of stories about autonomous vehicles in the pages of Today’s Motor Vehicles and on our website, and the industry consensus seems to be that this technology will be on the road soon.

Then what? What will a future look like if everyone in the car is a passenger? Will cars need windshield wipers? Will cars continue to be designed with rows of seats that run perpendicular to the road or with parallel, bench-like arrangements? Those are the sorts of design issues this magazine often considers.

Recently, however, an article by a city planner in my home town of Houston, Texas, caught my eye that asked a much bigger question. How will self-driving cars transform our cities and towns?

Writing for Cite Magazine, a quarterly publication managed by an architectural not-for-profit group housed at Rice University, landscape and city use planner Kinder Baumgardner envisions downtown districts gaining vast amounts of usable space – land mass that could support retail businesses, create parks, or allow for more housing. Autonomous cars could eliminate the need for up to 75% of the parking spaces and parking garages in urban areas, he writes.

Baumgardner’s vision follows a ride-sharing model. Instead of owning cars, people would subscribe to a service. A car would pick you up at home, take you to work, and instead of sitting idle in the parking lot all day, it would then drive off to shuttle other passengers around town. During slow times, the cars could go to remote parking lots on less-prime real estate.

Even if that model doesn’t take off, driverless cars should need less parking real estate. Computer-controlled, network-connected vehicles could be sandwiched into lots so closely that you couldn’t open doors. Cars could park bumper-to-bumper, several lanes deep. If a vehicle in the center needed to leave, surrounding cars could move out in an orderly fashion, creating a lane for it.

It’s an intriguing theory, though I’m not convinced. Automakers love the idea of autonomous vehicles because of the dramatic expansion of who could become mobile. Aging people who can’t drive today could become car buyers. Parents could buy cars for young children to take them to school. Disabled drivers could become passengers in their own cars. So increasing car ownership could outpace a reduced need for parking.

How do you envision a future in which cars drive themselves? Drop me a note at rschoenberger@gie.net.