A self-driving Uber. Image by Zombieite on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

Driverless cars, drones, and other high-tech changes to urban transportation are on the way. But what will they do to our region? New tech offers tremendous opportunities to make travel safer, cleaner, and more efficient, but could also cause big problems for cities and public space.

“Self-driving vehicles will improve our cities, if they don’t ruin them,” ZipCar founder Robin Chase wrote last summer. Chase now leads Osmosys, a movement focused on helping cities and other jurisdictions plan wisely for autonomous vehicles.

Chase foresees either a Heaven or Hell scenario. To her, Hell would be legions of individually-owned driverless vehicles loosed upon streets and highways, randomly ferrying individual occupants near and far. Heaven would follow what Chase calls the “FAVES” principle: Fleets of Autonomous Vehicles that are Electric and Shared.

For the best future, Chase recommends governments incentivize FAVES and disincentivize individually-owned driverless vehicles.

At an April roundtable hosted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, local experts seemed to agree.

Stop widening highways, say Uber & car2go

Ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber were a hot topic at the roundtable.

According to a report by Morgan Stanley, vehicles owned by ride-hailing services now provide 4% of global miles traveled, but that could zoom to 25% by 2030 with driverless vehicles.

“The self-driving piece can fast-forward into that future,” says Nick Zabriskie, who represented Uber at the discussion.

That will change how we provide infrastructure, says Zabriskie. With so many shared rides, significantly fewer vehicles will be on the road. Zabriskie questions the need to spend billions on bigger highways. “We have enough infrastructure,” he claims.

No one at the event, however, suggested ride-hailing could replace the need for mass transit. That the possibility would even come up “just makes me sick,” says Aaron Landry, general manager of car2go DC, a car-borrowing service that operates 600 vehicles in the Washington area. “Ultimately, mass transit is the backbone to transportation, despite all options.”

Roundtable participants. From left: Jon Schermann of MWCOG, Nick Zabriskie of Uber, and Hari Sripathi of VDOT. Image by the author.

Autonomous delivery will change curbs & sidewalks

Autonomous vehicles won't just revolutionize passenger transport. They're also rapidly changing the delivery business.

As airborne drone delivery hovers in the near future, robot coolers-on-wheels are already scooting food across the sidewalks of Georgetown, in direct conflict with pedestrians, strollers, wheelchairs, and cyclists. To manage these new frontiers, Jon Schermann from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments says that each jurisdiction will need to “navigate the trade-offs and create solutions that are acceptable to their residents and businesses.”

Even today, before driverless delivery has reached the mainstream, there's already serious “competition for curbside space,” among trucks, buses, taxis, and other ride-hailing services, says Schermann. For that reason, careful planning is needed now, to rethink how curb space is allocated. Right now, shop owners don't even think about the shared impact, he claimed. “That’s someone else’s trouble with the trucks.”

Interestingly, Uber’s Zabriskie does not anticipate that human drivers will be completely eliminated with the arrival of driverless delivery. “There would be a driver in a self-driving truck. The driver would take over to do “last-mile tasks” such as judging precisely where goods need to go.

VDOT data sharing makes roads more efficient

The Virginia Department of Transportation isn't sitting idly by, waiting for technology changes to happen. The agency is trying to plan for changing transportation, and is using current tech to make roads more efficient.

Through its “integrated corridor management” process, VDOT gathers and makes public data from a variety of sources, including Uber, transit, parking availability, and on-road conditions. The goal, according to VDOT's Hari Sripathi, is for consumers to make informed travel decisions. With a full picture of current conditions for all modes, he says, “people will make the choice that’s best for them.” Otherwise, “they’ll just drive.”

VDOT is already sending information from its 1,300 traffic signals to a data portal where it can be used by others to develop applications. The agency is also making work zone information available, which will ultimately assist connected and self-driving vehicles since that data is not on GPS.

Learn more on Wednesday, May 3

Another opportunity to explore these issues comes Wednesday, May 3, when Fairfax County hosts a vehicle display and afternoon symposium titled “Test Track for the Future of Autonomous Vehicles,” at 12000 Government Center Parkway. The event is free and open to the public.

As new technology continues to emerge, hopefully our region will take a cool-headed, proactive approach so we can solve current problems rather than exacerbate them.

Correction: The original version of this post used a quote from Jon Schermann that was intended only for aerial package delivery drones rather than on-the-ground delivery robots or autonomous vehicles. His quote has been updated to be more accurate.