How Will Self-Driving Cars Reshape Our Cities?

A Future Tense event recap.

Future Tense editorial director Andrés Martinez, Arizona State University President Michael Crow, and Waymo global head of policy Tekedra Mawakana.
Future Tense editorial director Andrés Martinez, Arizona State University President Michael Crow, and Waymo global head of policy Tekedra Mawakana.
Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“When I was 16, I took a 30-minute test, someone gave me a license, someone else gave me a car. In hindsight, that doesn’t seem like the most prudent thing,” said Tekedra Mawakana, vice president of global government relations and public policy for Waymo, at a recent Future Tense event when asked how Waymo, which was founded as a Google X moonshot project in 2009 to combat road fatalities, could already have driverless cars on the roads of cities like Phoenix. “There will always be highly unanticipated scenarios, but that’s what we’re building for.”

But even with millions of miles (billions if you count simulations) and billions in investment funding, the driverless future being unleashed by companies like Waymo, Lyft, and Uber still raises more questions than answers for the city planners who will be responsible for incorporating the technology into existing urban-transit infrastructures. How driverless cars will reshape our cities drove debate at an event hosted by Future Tense at the Arizona State University Barrett and O’Connor Center on March 13 in Washington. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.)

Eric Anderson, transportation director for Maricopa Association of Governments, pointed to a “risk-adverse” public sector as one of the reasons that smart cities and roads seem to be developing at a much slower rate than the autonomous driving technology itself, which has made enormous strides in the past decade.

“The challenge we have in the public sector is, how do we keep up with the new technology, and how do we know that in 10 years or even five years that we have the appropriate infrastructure in place?” said Anderson. This is especially true in Phoenix, where the population is set to continue to grow at the same time his organization predicts roadway population will actually decline. (The event took place before a pedestrian walking a bicycle was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber car in Tempe, Arizona.)

One key to these considerations is the debate over whether driverless cars will increase urban densification or, with the newfound ability to multitask during commutes, encourage Americans to live even farther out from city centers.

“The answer I think is both. It will do both, and we won’t know until people begin to start to make these changes with how they want to live,” said Grady Gammage, a senior fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. Cities will also have to re-evaluate the use of parking spaces and urban infrastructure that driverless cars might turn into relics of the past.

But alongside the question of who will be responsible for this reinvention of urban infrastructure was who will benefit from it: cities or companies. While monetizing everything from destination data to entertainment platforms has been of interest to private industry, the emerging issue of cities partaking in such extensive consumer-data collection has raised questions.

“Most privacy law is between the consumer and the customer, but we are going to have to have a conversation about data being held by a third-party municipality,” said Jordan Crenshaw, assistant policy counsel and committee executive for the Chamber Technology Engagement Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In Pittsburgh, where more than 60 percent of the population has now interacted with self-driving technology thanks to the city’s partnership with Uber, Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said the city is now focused on some of the larger ethical questions that autonomous vehicles raise.

“There is a role for vehicles in our cities but perhaps not as much as we use them today,” said Ricks, who believes that there is overuse of cars in short-distance trips in both urban and suburban areas. She placed the blame on current public-transit inefficiencies—not on a lack of vehicles, but the cost and consideration of staffing them with human drivers.

“There is nothing more efficient than a 40-passenger bus, ever,” said Ricks.

The role of autonomous vehicles in public transit systems was a recurring theme at the event, particularly when it came to disadvantaged populations.

Lyft’s senior director of global public policy and head of autonomous vehicle policy, Robert Grant, suggested that services like Lyft and other forms of “microtransit” will continue to serve the needs of individuals who aren’t served by bus routes or have other mobility issues. He also pointed to how things like an uptick in commercial delivery services have changed the transit landscape in cities.

“Five years ago the question was, Should Uber or Lyft even be in the city? And now most cities around the world have accepted that they’re a part of the transportation ecosystem. And now the question is, Well, what effect are they having?” said Grant.

One unavoidable effect, of course, has been the tension between ride-sharing services and labor, something that automation is set only to deepen. As automation poses a threat to human labor, speakers pointed to the necessity of considering the human impact of adapting such technologies. Arizona State University President Michael Crow called the need to find new work for people like those in the trucking industry whose jobs are being replaced by automation “a huge social question.”

Ricks emphasized that while they can “look at the data and analyze,” focusing on actual conversations with riders and the potential cultural impact is essential to making sure that driverless cars actually benefit citizens.

Interestingly, the environmental impact of autonomous vehicles on cities got little play in the debate, though Ken Laberteaux, a senior principal scientist at Toyota Research Institute–North America, disabused the assumption that all autonomous vehicles would be electric.

“Electrification will come if it’s universally and totally better than gas cars,” he said.

Even with the potential benefits, Ricks still fears that the proliferation of privately owned ride-sharing companies, which still privilege individual convenience over public good, might ultimately disserve communities. She cited one example of a private company prototype she had seen that had the passenger capacity of a bus, but each seat had its own privacy pod.

“I think we’ve already witnessed what the loss of social cohesion in our country is leading to, and I’m not sure that’s the path we really want to go down.”