The future of driverless cars is coming and, perhaps, faster than some might think: Robot drivers are expected to share public roads within a few years, and mainstream use is potentially 15 to 20 years away, according to industry experts.
In San Luis Obispo, the city’s long-term planning decisions might soon factor in an autonomous future. Parking, circulation, shuttling, and drop-off zones all could be affected if autonomous cars become the norm.
No significant steps are being taken yet to alter city infrastructure. But city officials say they’re keeping an eye on autonomous vehicle (AV) testing and emerging trends.
“We’ve cobbled together a whole bunch of resources on estimates of when we’ll start seeing the major effects of AVs,” said Jake Hudson, the city’s transportation manager. “The information we’ve seen is that cars could be commercially available by 2020. But we probably won’t see the major effects until between 2035 and 2050.”
Hudson added, “I think we will start seeing mass transit services that won’t have a (human) driver, but to what degree is still unknown.”
Robot cars on the way
It’s possible that experimental AVs could soon be on public roads in the San Luis Obispo area, and companies could be testing them locally already like they have been in the Bay Area, said Billy Riggs, a University of San Francisco city planning professor.
Riggs has specialized on developments in autonomy and smart transportation, formerly serving on the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission while teaching at Cal Poly.
“I am very vocal that change will take place in the near term and these cars will be prevalent in the next five to 10 years,” Riggs said. “I have no doubt they will make driving safer. We should be putting these vehicles on the roads as quickly as possible.”
But Scott Lee, the city’s parking manager, said that he is skeptical of the safety of autonomous vehicles, considering the many variables that humans face while driving, from objects in the road to unexpected decisions by other motorists.
“I think that 15 to 20 years could be a reasonable timeline, but since a fatal crash happened in Arizona (in March with a test AV), we haven’t been hearing boo about AVs in the news,” Lee said. “It will be interesting to see if the safety problems set the industry back once more AV cars are on the road. ... I personally wouldn’t be comfortable driving in an AV right now.”
Driverless cars in SLO
San Luis Obispo Councilwoman Andy Pease believes AVs will help reduce the need for car ownership and envisions the possibility of fixed-route, driverless shuttles running to and from Cal Poly along Foothill Boulevard as one of the first major applications of AVs in SLO.
Pease said cities will need to plan to prevent roads from becoming clogged, perhaps by establishing passenger loading zones on the downtown perimeter so they’re not circling the city, while empty of passengers, looking for pickups.
“In 20 years, will there be a need for a car and, if so, how many per household?” Pease asked. “I think key considerations for the future also are easier drop-off locations and remote car storage.”
She also believes driverless cars could eventually help more people get to downtown to shop, eat and be entertained, benefiting the local economy.
Michael Codron, the city’s development director, said the “jury is still out on the impacts” of driverless cars on land use, and also where the vehicles will be parked after drop-offs.
But expected changes include less need for parking garages downtown or wide streets with curbside parking.
National transportation experts say that parking spaces could potentially be converted to uses such as parks, garden and seating areas, housing, community rooms or pedestrian paths.
The next 20 years
California law allows for driverless test vehicles on public roads with an approved human driver to take over the wheel if necessary.
Another state pilot program allows for passengers to ride for free in completely unmanned cars under a set of conditions and regulations.
High-functioning automated vehicles — defined as those that don’t require much, if, any, human driver assistance — aren’t expected to be available commercially until 2020, while the majority of automobiles are expected to be driverless between 2030 and 2040, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers.
“The effect will be that more people will have access to vehicles,” Hudson said.
People who now can’t drive — including children, the disabled, elderly and poor, and those with DUIs or driving restrictions — would have new opportunities for car travel.
As more driverless cars occupy streets, they will be able to drive closer together while coordinating their automated systems — perhaps one day eliminating the need for stop signs.
“There are crazy videos out there where AVs just miss each other because the cars are able to drive so much closer together,” said Michael Boswell, Cal Poly’s department head for city and regional planning. “If you’re a passenger, you pretty much have to close your eyes and not watch.”
An emerging market
Driverless test cars use exterior lasers, cameras, radar and other navigational sensors to survey the roadways alongside human-operated vehicles. In 2017, Wired Magazine counted 263 companies racing to cash in on the budding driverless market.
Waymo announced in May that it was adding 62,000 driverless minivans in a partnership with Fiat Chrysler, ramping up its plans to launch rail-hailing services on the open market.
The company has tested its vehicles in 25 cities across the U.S., “in all types of weather and all types of roads,” said Liz Markman, a Waymo spokeswoman.
Markman said that Waymo’s vehicles are designed to navigate public roadways like a human driver, reacting to the changing conditions around them such as a pedestrian or cyclist who juts into an intersection or a fallen tree limb.
Accidents will be greatly reduced, experts say, because the vehicles will take away the human factors of aggressive, drowsy or drunken driving, as well as texting while driving and other distractions.
“As far as public health is concerned, if people are serious about addressing the 40,000 lives lost each year due to vehicle accidents, AVs (autonomous vehicles) will be critical in helping to make that happen,” Codron said. “The statistics show that humans are not very good at driving.”
But skeptics point to well-documented fatal crashes such as one in March in which a driverless Uber car — with an emergency backup human driver behind the wheel — struck and killed a pedestrian on a street in Tempe, Arizona, after failing to slow down.
John M. Simpson of the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog, called for a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads until “complete details of this tragedy are made public and are analyzed by outside experts so we understand what went so terribly wrong.”
Riggs said refinements will be needed to AVs and public roads will need improvements as the vehicles hit the commercial market.
”The roadway infrastructure and signage will need to be clear, so that lines are clearly painted for the AVs to follow and stop signs aren’t obstructed by trees,” Riggs said. “The most common reason now that an AV can’t get to a place now is damage to road signs that sensors can’t pick up.”
Key questions also remain about the transportation future: Will AVs travel on fixed routes like buses or roam freely as most drivers do? Will there be new designated drop-off, pickup and parking zones? What about surcharges for driving into more-congested city centers?
“City planners should be staying abreast of these developments,” Boswell said. “SLO will have the chance to observe how this is working elsewhere because it’s likely not going to be the first for tech deployments. But regardless of what technology comes in the future, the city should implement plans for the city it wants to see.”
The city’s Downtown Concept Plan, a vision for how San Luis Obispo should be developed over the next 25 years, encourages parking on the downtown perimeter with a pedestrian-friendly center to encourage foot traffic in the city’s center.
In a driverless car future, that would help keep the higher traffic flows from overcrowding downtown, where people frequent shops, bars, offices, and restaurants, experts say.
Riggs said he believes that cities also should stop building large parking garages or at least be able to convert them to other uses in the future.
“Building a multi-million dollar parking structure may not be the wisest decision,” Riggs said. “Cities should start thinking of a parking replacement plan and rethink parking revenue.”
But Lee said he doesn’t believe the city should change its plans to build a proposed $23 million, five-story, 445-space parking garage at Palm and Nipomo streets — which many SLO business owners have called for, saying that parking is badly needed.
“It would cost an extra 20 to 25 percent to build it to repurpose for another use,” Lee said. “That’s an extra $5 million or more just to say you can do something else with it. It makes far more sense to tear down an older parking structure than to build a new one that can be used for something else in the future.”
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