Michael Morscher

December 8, 2017

A Disappearing Act

Not all of the impact on infrastructure resulting from the deployment of self-driving cars will be innovative high-tech replacements of the infrastructure we already rely on. A great deal of the change will likely be today's infrastructure disappearing.

One of the articles in the recent New York Times Magazine issue dedicated to self-driving cars is titled "Cities Without Signs". It makes the point that without humans needing to navigate in their cars, the concept of needing street signs at every waypoint is obsolete. AVs can direct themselves through GPS data, control their speed without speed limit signs, and safely operate without abiding by stop signs, "do not enter" signs, and yield signs. Why would we build and maintain costly signage that goes unused?

"...No huge billboards across highways naming the exits, no complex merge instructions. Certainly, human pedestrians and cyclists will still need guideposts, but as Stone suspects, far fewer, and smaller, ones... It could make a city less cluttered and more attractive. But it might also leave us feeling unmoored." 

Indeed, for those of us living our whole lives with omnipresent infrastructure features, it will feel strange seeing them disappear. Future generations will only read about street signs and these other artifacts in history books:

‍AV adoption on a shared-use model would let every home garage be transformed into a new space.
  • Home garages. Who would dedicate 20% of their living space to a car they don't own and parks itself at remote locations for the few hours of a day it even needs to be parked?
  • Parking lots and public garages. Same considerations, but on an even larger scale. Land that is made available can be used for massive urban development projects rather than just home renovation.
‍Parking garages can be gradually reclaimed and eventually eliminated with the utility of self-driving cars.
  • Mechanic shops. Regardless of how much auto repair itself becomes automated, it certainly won't require prime real estate if cars take themselves in for maintenance.
  • Traffic lights. In the short term with partial AV adoption they will become even more essential, but when all cars become autonomous they can be eliminated.
‍AVs will be able to use virtual renderings of intersections instead of traffic lights.
  • Gas stations. AVs and EVs go hand in hand, making gas stations a thing of the past...
"There might be a time in the far future where you explain to your grandchildren about how you had to refuel your car -- that wasn't self-driving -- at a special place in town. Maybe they'll giggle thinking about the ridiculousness of putting a liquid in a car. But when you tell them about the selection of beef jerky at this "gas station" their eyes will grow wide, which will be followed by complete disgust as you describe the filthiest bathroom you've ever encountered."  (Thank you Engadget for playing perfectly into my narrative)

We are only at the early stages of autonomous technology. Many other facets of infrastructure will unexpectedly become obsolete. And they will disappear.

But from this exodus will arise a new opportunity in infrastructure.

The possibilities of how to use all this reclaimed land area and air space are endless. What would you do with it?

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/07/magazine/tech-design-future-autonomous-cars-american-interstate-highway-roads-suburbs.html https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/08/magazine/tech-design-autonomous-future-cars-100-percent-augmented-reality-policing.html#cities-without-signs https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/02/how-self-driving-cars-will-change-real-estate.html https://www.treehugger.com/cars/what-happens-parking-garages-when-self-driving-cars-rule-road.html www.inverse.com/article/26164-parking-garages-are-irrelevant therealdeal.com/2017/06/09/are-parking-garages-toast/ https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/10/auto-mechanic-technician/502976/ https://www.pcmag.com/commentary/343364/can-self-driving-cars-kill-traffic-lights https://www.engadget.com/2017/06/27/the-rise-of-electric-car-will-kill-the-gas-station/ http://www.techzone360.com/topics/techzone/articles/2016/12/12/427955-how-self-driving-cars-will-kill-car-companies.htm http://bigthink.com/disruptive-demographics/will-self-driving-cars-do-away-with-luxury-car-ownership-many-other-things-too
Michael Morscher
Engineering Psychology and Computer Science