What our roads will look like with driverless cars

What our roads will look like with driverless cars

The internal combustion engine transformed our world; driverless electric cars will do the same.

Riddle me this. As an invention I will javelin humanity into the future even as I slow the pace of urban change. Although I scored a mere two-word mention in Joe Hockey's Intergenerational Report, I dominated the debate hands down. In both concept and form I seem quite old-fashioned, yet I am far more significant even than that debate implied, for I will reshape your cities, soothe your ears, counteract your too-human frailties and maybe – just maybe – shrink your tumorous egos. What wondrous beast am I? I am the driverless car.

"Self-navigating vehicle" was Hockey's descriptor, his report tersely noting that such technologies could "unlock quality of life improvements". In person, however, the Treasurer was more expansive, acknowledging the sociological import of the driverless car. Predicting that by 2040 most cars will be driverless, he envisioned them empowering people like his own ageing parents to evade the nursing home.

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.</i>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

Sceptics say the autonomous car has always been 10 years away. But now it really does seem imminent. The Google car – a cute anthropomorphic turret-topped bubble – has clocked up almost 1 million driverless kilometres around Silicon Valley. This is roughly twice the average driver's accident-free mileage and all of its dents, they say, arise from (other) driver error. Three other prototypes are also driving around British cities.

Naturally, there are challenges. Road deaths reliably shock us but what's really amazing, as any aerial video shows, is how many accidents we don't have. This is due to human subtlety – seeing, sensing, adjusting, learning, signalling. The challenge is to replicate these traits in a machine. So driverless cars combines lidar, radar, GPS, scanning, 3D-imaging and learning technologies.

A self-driving car developed and outfitted by Google, with device on roof, at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

A self-driving car developed and outfitted by Google, with device on roof, at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.Credit:New York Times

The car also makes judgment calls: when to run an orange light; at what point proximity becomes tailgating and, at an uncontrolled four-way intersection, when other drivers' "nudging" signals incipient movement. Google car's rooftop laser emits 64 beams 10 times a second, scanning 1.3 million points in concentric waves to detect a cat-size object 50 metres away.

Those who experience the ride say it feels more courtly than aggressive. Sensing roadwork or accident ahead, the car will gently prompt you to "resume manual control". There's also a big red manual override button, for that purpose.

This is huge. Inside a few years, older citizens will no longer fear losing their driver's licence, since the press of a button will have them delivered like pods in a vacuum chute to hairdresser, dentist or dialysis, possibly all at once.

But that's just the tip of the driverless car iceberg. Consider the impact on houses, streets, cities and economies.

It won't be a matter simply of popping down to the garage and setting the dial to self-drive. Our world is so shaped by the impact of the car little will be left unaffected.

Car ownership will be far less compelling. If you're not going to drive it, why own, register, service and house the machine? Why not merge the separately evolved ideas of car-share and cab-share? You'll subscribe, as you might to Uber or GoGet, but when you call, a car will be at your door in moments.

At a pass of your credit card, or maybe your retina, you'll be welcomed in to a vehicle pre-programmed with your destination, movie choice and beverage. You'll lounge in a spacious back seat themed to your choice – gondola, boudoir, cinema – reading your favourite e-news on the ceiling screen. It'll wait while you shop – or disappear while you do something more clandestine – and drive you home as required.

Without the drink-driving worry police availability will blossom (lessening crime) and restaurants will flourish. Taxis will become extinct, and the forensic trope of tracing the perp or victim via their abandoned car will need to be rethought.

Streets, no longer lined by parking or defined by rows of roller doors, will transform. Some parking will be needed, but hunting and circling for a park – gone.

Gone the snarl of traffic signs entangling our streets. Gone, too, speed-infringement anxiety caused by rapid-fire limit shifts where an eye blink, in unvarying road conditions, can transgress speed zones and cost you $250.

Car-parking buildings will shrink, being mere robot-stackers and, since the driverless car can easily self-charge and need no longer be thrilling, electricity will quickly become the dominant fuel.

Since driverless cars stop easily and safely, the tailgating danger will be more emotional than real, so traffic will be denser as well as safer. This means roads can be narrower, especially with on-street parking so much less important. WestConnex, once built, will be as useful as our desalination white elephant, and can be rapidly recycled as a community food-growing corridor.

Traffic-ridden streets will become magically silent, fragrant and dustless. This will redraw Sydney's property pattern. Motorways will become as soothing to watch as rivers. Sound barriers will be dismantled, since the road now emits a gentle swooshing, and facades once conceived as battlements will adopt a new, open countenance. Values will rise and the dominant sound along the Parramatta Road will be the clink of coffee spoons.

So, when can you sign? Ford chief executiveMark Fields says driverless cars will be on sale – though not from Ford – by 2020. Others say they're already coming by stealth, as we outsource more and more driving skills, from staying on speed to staying awake, to so-called driver aids.

But before you do sign, consider for a second the downsides. One is the possible demise of the road trip, a cultural genre whose loss I for one will truly mourn. The other is more sinister.

As ever, it's about power relationships. If the car controls you, who controls the car? Already Google mapping coaxes you consistently into the gently smiling jaws of the tollway monster. The driverless car, under the combined umbrella of government metadata and corporate favouritism, becomes an unprecedented opportunity to track and influence behaviour.

So, what to call it, this dream machine? Smart car might suit. Even auto. But they're already taken. And anyway, perhaps a truer tag might be Idiotica. Dopemobile. Dupester.

Twitter @emfarrelly

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. A former editor and Sydney City Councilor, she is also Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Graduate School of Urbanism at UNSW. Her books include 'Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, 'Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

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