How Self-Driving Cars Can Help Make Cities Better

Driverless cars promise to reshape cities beyond just easing traffic congestion. These futuristic vehicles generate vast amounts of data that officials hope to use to fill potholes more quickly, replace parking lots with parks, and create traffic lanes for buses and first responders.

Data generated from self-driving cars will provide cities with “a more granular viewpoint into everything from infrastructure wear-and-tear to detailed traffic flow information and even sidewalk congestion patterns,” says Brooks Rainwater, director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.

Self-driving prototypes today produce gigabytes of data about their location and road conditions every minute they’re on the road. That figure will balloon as driverless technology is perfected, experts say.

Even now, cities can harness data from ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft to help decide where to create designated pick-up and drop-off zones that don’t block traffic. In the future, cities are expected to drill deeper into the data to monitor road repairs, create speedier public transportation, and find new uses for parking garages.

On average, personal cars sit idle about 95% of the time. In contrast, self-driving vehicles–in the future–could be in service 24 hours a day, seven days a week–pulling off the road only for refueling and maintenance.

“That opens up a lot of space that was devoted to on-street parking or parking garages but now can be used for other purposes or green space,” says Jay Kim, assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

The City of Los Angeles has already begun asking developers to consider creating parking structures that can be repurposed as housing and retail if and when demand for parking wanes. Including supportive columns, flat floors, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning would allow future builders to “pop in some walls and turn it into usable space,” Kim says.

In addition, there would be fewer cars on the road, which would make it easier for cities to designate certain streets for pedestrians and cyclists only. The end result would be more walkable districts along with more public spaces for festivals and farmers markets.

Car data could also be used to influence zoning requirements for commercial districts, according to Stephanie Cegielski, a spokeswoman at the International Council of Shopping Centers. For example, the number of parking spaces currently required in certain cities for new office and retail buildings can eat up to half a development’s footprint.

“Properties will likely not need as many parking spaces, but changes to those numbers will require changes within local ordinances,” Cegielski says.

The data could make cities safer, too, especially as telecom companies start rolling out 5G wireless, the speedier successor to 4G LTE, says Lani Ingram, vice president of Smart Communities at Verizon. With edge computing, a device or sensor can analyze real-time data by using a nearby computer rather than by sending the information to the cloud, industry jargon for a third-party’s data center.

Such change would accelerate decision-making and computer-to-machine interactions by milliseconds, imperceptible to humans but a significant improvement for computers.

Cars could get an automatic warning when a street light will change, allowing them to stop over a shorter distance, according to Ingram. The increased efficiency–20 feet to 40 feet–would help cities maximize space on the road, possibly even opening the door to cities creating separate lanes for mass transit.

“The ability to connect people with their environment in real time could revolutionize how we live and work,” Ingram says.

Some of the safety benefits of sharing data are already a reality. Last year, Los Angeles struck an agreement to give scooter rental companies like Bird and Lime permits to operate within the city in exchange for data about when and where those scooters are used. That data is intended to ensure that companies comply with limits to the size of their fleets and that scooters remain within designated areas, out of the way of pedestrians and cyclists.

Eventually, in notoriously congested cities such as Los Angeles, data shared among vehicles and infrastructure could help route self-driving cars away from gridlock or provide real-time pricing information for automated parcel delivery across the city.

Says Kim, from Los Angeles’ city government, “Data is really powerful if you collect it the right way, but there’s a bunch of baby steps that need to happen before we can get there.”