What happens after autonomous cars?

Your humble author’s own 13 year old car.

One of the things that jumped out to me about the three finalist proposals for the city owned lot at the corner of 3rd Ave and 1st Street SE was how much parking each included. The Avalon Sky Lofts included a 365 space parking garage. Aspect’s project was basically a very gorgeous parking garage with 552 spaces. The winning project, One Park Place, includes a 744 space parking garage. Why did these projects place such a huge emphasis on parking?

Parking is the thing everyone, everywhere, all of the time, complains about. The kind of parking. Where you can park. When you can park. Paying for parking. Parking is a nightmare, so there’s a huge emphasis on making it less of a nightmare. But what if we’re on the cusp of a world where we rarely, if ever park our cars ourselves?

Autonomous cars are real, and you can already purchase cars with a great deal, if not full, autonomy. These systems aren’t perfect, but they’re already better than human drivers. We’re only a few years away from autonomous features on cars becoming standard. How long will it take for these cars to dominate the road? The average car is 11 years old. They spend 95% of the time parked. According to AAA, the average cost of owning a car in the United States is about $725 a month. Obviously that can vary dramatically from state to state and car to car. Still, that’s a ton of money. Basically by 2030 it’s reasonable to assume that most off the cars on the road will have some level of automation. What does a world where most cars can drive themselves look like?

In this world (which is our near future), Uber, and companies like it, won’t contract human drivers because it won’t be necessary. They’ll will have access to more cars, more often, making the service more reliable. No longer will you open the Uber app after a night out and find that the nearest car is twenty minutes away and there’s a huge surge pricing multiple. The cost for an individual ride will fall dramatically, making it more cost effective to use Uber to commute and run errands.

In a world where hailing a ride is convenient, cheap, and reliable many people will simply forego the hassle of car ownership. Families will downsize from two cars to one, since it will be cheaper to use uber to commute than own two cars. Millennials, a generation with a noted disinterest for car ownership already, won’t replace the cars they currently own. Instead of moving into retirement homes the elderly will be able to stay in their homes far longer because they’ll have access to transportation.

Whether you’re in your own car or one from a ride-hailing service, the search for a parking spot will disappear. You’ll simply get out of your car at your destination, and it will find a place to park on it’s own. While you’re out and about you’ll be able to send your own car out to ferry other people around, generating income while you’re out on the town.

Police budgets will be ravaged, they’ll no longer be able to generate income from traffic stops and red light cameras. The era of the routine traffic stop will come to an end. Auto-accident related fatalities will plummet to near zero.

In some cities Amazon already contracts out with drivers for two hour deliveries. In a future where every city in America has a fleet of autonomous cars, you won’t run your errands, your errands will run to you. Out of toilet paper? Amazon will have it to your house in an hour. What happens to retail, specifically, big-box retail, when ordering online becomes nearly as quick and convenient?

Autonomous cars change everything. We’ve spent 70 years reorganizing our built environment and recalibrating our lives for cars. Now, we’re on the cusp of technological changes that will upend the fundamental principles of why we did that, in a little over a decade.

All the proposals for downtown Cedar Rapids included a huge number of parking spots because they were designed in a world where the need for parking only ever increases. What if we’re about to enter a world where the need for parking decreases dramatically?