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The Public Architects (PA) Committee promotes excellence in public architecture and enhances the role of the public architect as an essential element in the planning, design, construction, and management of public facilities. Join us!

How to plan and design cities for autonomous vehicles

  • 1.  How to plan and design cities for autonomous vehicles

    Posted 05-09-2019 17:50


    This is the second of two essays investigating the current global backlash against technology and science and its impacts on the built environment. The first addressed the "smart city", this addresses the autonomous vehicle.

    We observed in the first article that revolutions are usually followed by phases of reaction and revisionism. Since the modern city is very much defined by the car, the autonomous vehicle (AV) is seen many respects as the culmination of the Smart City. Some say that the AV will shape cities in the same way as the onset of the automobile. However, the backlash is already happening even before the promise of this technology had any chance to become reality. Jeff Speck in a talk at the US Conference of Mayors offered "ten rules for cities  about automated vehicles". Rule #1: Be afraid, #2: Be realistic. This pretty much sums up the current state of sentiments about AVs. We will try to sort through the risks and opportunities and the related design challenges.
    Possible adoption rates for AVs: Revolutionary or evolutionary?

    The crash that turned public opinion around

    As many had predicted, the first fatality caused by an AV turned public opinion in a profound way. The deciding crash wasn't the Tesla driver who  had been decapitated when his car drove under a white tractor trailer his car couldn't decipher as an obstacle. He, against better knowledge, had watched a movie and not the road. The crash that changed everything was a self driving Google vehicle killing a woman pushing a bike across a poorly lit suburban roadway in a suburb of Tempe. Here, too the driver had watched something else than the road, but the victim was not he but a pedestrian which his vehicle should have seen and avoided but didn't. Apparently the operator had turned off some alarms that the system would have emitted when it couldn't tell what the pedestrian pushing a bike was. But those details didn't matter, all tech giants racing towards the AV had to hit the breaks while the public debated the classic ethical "trolley dilemma" applied to the AV, even though the crash had little to do with this particular ethics problem.
    High AV growth predicted for "Robo-Taxis" like Wymo

    The current transportation quagmire
    Cities and metro regions around the world are congested by too many automobiles, mostly driven by solo drivers. Especially in the US the share of transit in urban mobility is low, many jobs can only be reached by car and commute times by transit are frequently significantly longer than by car. Cars represent a significant cost burden for their owners and sit around parked more than 95% of the time, making it inefficient for owners and the public. A lot of public space is devoted to this inefficient mode of urban transportation, especially for parking. Transportation produces the highest portion of greenhouse gas and other harmful emissions. The death toll on the roads is high and after years of decline was rising again. In spite of transportation demand management, complete streets policies, active transportation and attempts of smart growth, most transportation metrics of the modern metro point in the wrong direction, in the US and elsewhere.
    Urban congestion and pollution in Stuttgart Germany, a city which
    will ban certain Diesel vehicles downtown

    Can the AV be a silver bullet for the current transportation malaise?

    Proponents of the AV have predicted a future in which all of current transportation calamities would be solved thanks to  self driving cars: The streets would be free of fatalities and congestion .....

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    [Klaus] Philipsen FAIA
    Archplan Inc. Philipsen Architects
    Baltimore MD
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