Autonomous vehicles and the future of California water management

What do autonomous vehicles have to do with California water? More than you might think.

Governor Brown recently declared the end of the California drought and has released a new long term framework to make conservation a way of life in California.

As we think long term about California’s urban water use, it’s worth noting that autonomous vehicles will have transformative impacts on urban water use patterns — think of the transition from 19th century horse powered cities to 20th century car culture.

The rise of the personal automobile enabled the rise of suburbs and Southern California in particular personified the ubiquity of the automobile. This transformation had dramatic impacts on land use and population density as shown in the graph below from the hot-off-the-presses Bloomberg Philanthropies report “Taming the Autonomous Vehicle”:

The evolution to autonomous vehicles will have similarly transformative impacts on urban density, land use and thus ultimately water use patterns. Note the underlying technology is already here and utilized in controlled environments like Google’s Mountain View Campus or select parts of Singapore.

Full level 5 autonomous vehicle deployment in complex urban environments with challenging edge cases like construction areas, school zones and the vagaries of human volition will be more difficult and require much more rule setting, regulation and old fashioned urban planning than many technology triumphalists of autonomous vehicles articulate.

“Building a car that can drive everywhere is very challenging…. It is more promising to start with a different goal: a shuttle/bus that can only drive one bus route or just in a small region.” — Andrew Ng, Chief Scientist Baidu

As with the adoption of many technologies like the personal automobile, autonomous vehicles adoption has started slowly with incremental innovation and will have several tipping points towards ubiquity as shown below:

Eras of the automobile from the aforementioned Bloomberg report
Future waypoints for autonomous vehicle AV adoption from the aforementioned Bloomberg report

The implications of AV’s for land use are still up in the air and critically will depend on the plans and policies cities put in place today. Regardless, the implications for land use will be transformative as people have a radically more convenient way to move between where they live, work and play.

Will autonomous vehicles lead to a more sprawl as it becomes more convenient to commute from longer and longer distances? (A 2+ hour commute becomes more tolerable with the ability to watch TV or work while your pod whisks you to your place of work.)

Will autonomous vehicles lead to a new urban revival as parking is repurposed for additional uses and next generation logistics make denser living more attractive? (Note the revitalization of urban environments like the LA River and Amazon’s plans to offer same day groceries on demand, potentially ending urban food deserts.)

The future may be uncertain but we can make reasonable inferences about the implications of various autonomous vehicle scenarios for urban water use. More sprawl means more yards and thus more water use while increased density implies lower future urban water use. The time is now to plan for and prepare California for the rapidly emerging future.



As my wife wisely says, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”