Self-driving cars are on the horizon, and they’re probably going to be transformative in ways that are hard to predict, and go far beyond the act of driving. For example, stadium tailgating is one cultural mainstay likely to change drastically.

Will the self-driving car make this kind of scene a thing of the past? Photo by bamoffitteventphotos on Flickr.

Tailgating is one reason there will be pressure for any new DC football stadium to have lots of surface parking. Debating that thinking is one matter, but there’s also a totally different reason to consider the subject: It’s an example of an everyday activity that will change drastically once self-driving cars are on the road.

Obviously, the future of tailgating isn’t the most pressing urbanist issue. In fact, when it comes to the future of our cities and the importance of land-use, housing affordability, and transportation access, it’s hard to think it’s even on anyone’s radar. But there are plenty of people who love tailgating, and it’s definitely an activity someone will need to rethink after the massive shift that self-driving car technology would bring about.

That’s because the plan for self-driving cars is to upend the entire transportation system. A roving fleet of robot taxis you can summon on-demand by smart phones will supplant individual car ownership, and communities will re-evaluate the need for massive parking lots.

Right now, cars double as tailgating storage space

In its current conception, cars are central to tailgating. They serve as both of a means of getting to the game (for both the spectator and his sundry equipment), the locus for tailgating activity, and a place to store equipment during the game. Each of these uses is predicated on the idea that the car will remain in a fixed location and be able to hold personal goods while fans are in the stadium.

If fans arrive by self-driving cars that then go off on other trips, where will they store their cornhole apparatus after they go into the game? Will they hire another self-driving car to bring it all home? Will someone be at the other end of the trip to unload it? It’s unlikely that anyone would hire a car to drive their folding chairs in circles for the duration of the game and it certainly wouldn’t be sustainable if all tailgaters decided to take this approach.

Perhaps stadiums will set up rentable storage lockers for coolers or establish a grill valet.

Parking lots, not just tailgating, may be a thing of the past

Tailgating is based around the premise of a parking lot as “pop up” recreational space. But with less need to store cars on-site, the likelihood of property owners maintaining (or municipal regulations mandating) seas of surface parking will diminish. While stadiums could establish park space in lieu of parking to continue to meet the need for tailgate space, equally likely is the development of this land into other uses. That’d mean future tailgaters will have to find somewhere else to party.

While driving to the game isn’t a strict prerequisite for tailgating, it’s only possible now, even for fans who arrive by other means, because parking lots are sufficiently large to allow for this secondary use. Will greedy sports owners, who seek to extract every dollar possible from the in game experience, want to set aside space for an activity from which they don’t make money?

The future is coming. Let’s adapt

Self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionize our roads. Their reliability will reduce traffic fatalities and the ability to hire one on as-needed basis will cut the overall number of vehicles needed as well the amount of space dedicated to store them. But as our relationship to the car changes, so will the societal activities based around parking.

Should we take this future into consideration as we start planning for future spaces? Or do we run the risk of hubris if we start planning for a technology that we have no idea about how it will actually work and when it will fully emerge? It’s hard to know.

While there’s nothing incompatible about grilling meats and robot cars, the fundamental changes in mobility that self-driving cars might bring could have a much greater impact on our recreational activities than we might currently think. One of those impacts could be the end of an American tradition.

But it doesn’t have to be. What people love about tailgating has very little to do with the car itself; it’s the social activity. There’s nothing special about a parking lot per se, but in a future when they’re not as omnipresent, we need to think about spaces for people to gather and what those spaces should look like.