More on the Future of the Auto-Car

The website Curbed has an interesting article on the impact of driverless cars on the shape of our cities (assuming that most driverless cars will be shared vehicles). Mostly, they talk about how fewer cars mean less need for parking and more room downtown for pedestrians and bicycles. That got me thinking about what a future commute might look like.

I’ve already talked about how networked cars will let us work on the go, but I didn’t talk about other ways that shared cars will impact our future commutes. If you want to see the future, go to Washington, D.C.

If you hang around the Pentagon parking lot at the end of the work day, you will see lots of busses pulling up and loading passengers for trips to the hinterlands. These aren’t Metro busses, because they go far beyond the metro boundaries. They are owned by small companies that haul people down to the park-and-ride lots scattered around the perimeter of Dale City and other bedroom communities. These represent the high end of shared commuting, and could easily be replaced by auto-busses.

But right next to them you will see another line, probably unique in the US. It’s a line of commuters waiting for a ride from strangers. You see, the Pentagon parking lots connect directly to the freeway, and specifically to the HOV-4 lanes. So people jump in their cars, drive to the commuter lines, and call out “Three for Dale City Safeway lot”, or “Two for Potomac Mills Mall”, and two or three people, who never met before, will jump in a car driven by a complete stranger, and head off on a thirty mile drive.

Now, jump ahead twenty years, and everywhere is the Pentagon parking lot. People have apps on their phones (or whatever has replaced “phones”) that will alert auto-cars to their current location and desired destination. The cars pick up people from the same city blocks who are headed for the same suburban blocks and take off. Unless there is an increase in networked working from a commuter car, that means the downtown areas will see periodic traffic jams, much like they do now. Maybe a little thinner, because of no single occupancy vehicles, but I suspect that the process of making multiple stops on public streets will keep the congestion high around closing time.

In DC, the HOV lanes fill up by 4:30, and spill over into the regular traffic. In future, they will fill up at about the same time, but perhaps more lanes will be dedicated to HOVs. Instead of heading to a single park-and-ride, the auto-cars will swing through the neighborhoods, dropping off commuters. And then what?

Well, the auto-cars could just park at some recharging point and wait for morning. After all they are already close to where they’ll need to be, come dawn. Or maybe they’ll head for some decentralized set of maintenance facilities, to prepare for the next day. In which case, we’ll see a mini rush hour at, say, six or seven PM, as they head for home, and then another mini rush hour at five or six AM as they preposition for the morning commute. And in the daytime? Well, a goodly number of them will be needed to replace the taxis that have now gone out of business. As for the rest, I guess we won’t be able to get rid of all that downtown parking after all.

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