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What will driverless electric cars mean for cities?

Photograph T E S L A by Thomas Juel on 500px

T E S L A by Thomas Juel on 500px

Yesterday I posted a video about the career of Elon Musk. And it reminded me of something that’s been on my mind as I think about transportation, cities, and the future.

Elon’s story for why he founded SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX is incredibly compelling. He chose problems and industries that he felt would move humanity forward. He felt that we needed sustainable forms of energy production (SolarCity), sustainable forms of transport (Tesla), and a way for humans to occupy other planets (SpaceX). That’s incredible ambition.

Today though, I just want to focus on the transportation piece.

Electric and driverless vehicles, I believe, are a step in the right direction. I honestly believe that at some point in the not too distant future we’re going to look back at that time when people used to drive their own cars and wonder how we ever allowed that to happen.

But fundamentally, I think there still remains a question of how best to plan our cities. 

There’s lots of talk today about peak car and the death of the automobile. Certainly within planning and urbanist circles, there’s an almost universal belief that planning (most of) our cities around the car, as opposed to people, was a huge mistake. Multimodal solutions with a public transit backbone are now the way forward.

But will that always be the case as the notion of the “car” evolves?

Intuitively, driverless vehicles feels like a massive opportunity to leverage data and better optimize our private transport assets. We know that the utilization rate for most private cars is incredibly low and so there’s lots of room to improve how we use and share private vehicles and how we move people around cities.

But how big is that opportunity? Does a city filled with driverless electric vehicles and with networks like Uber mean that public transportation now becomes less important? And if so, how much less important?

I can’t help but feel like private and public transport are on a collision course right now. I suppose that isn’t anything new. But this time around I wonder if private transport won’t figure out a way to achieve similar efficiencies to large scale public transport.

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