By Danielle Desjardins

We are on the brink of a revolution, a revolution that will profoundly affect society, change the way cities look and function and fundamentally transform how people and goods move.

It’s been dubbed the “driverless revolution” and it will be brought about by the advent of autonomous cars (AV), cars that drive themselves with little or no human intervention. In addition to their effect on modes of transport, AVs are poised to disrupt many industries: fast food, real estate, hotels, airlines — large industries that will have to shift their strategies in the wake of driverless cars.

The biggest disruption could be on parking. Among other innovations the revolution will bring, we will see AV fleets moving continuously between the various places they are needed, rendering the need for close and convenient parking spaces much less necessary.

Ready for the driverless revolution?

In the last issue, we discussed the potentially impending driverless revolution and the impact it could have on the parking industry1. In the envisioned driverless society, fully automated vehicles (AVs) would drop their passengers at their destination, go home to park or return in the transportation network while awaiting their next ride and the parking industry would be massively disrupted.

To some, the driverless revolution is already be upon us and our roads will be overtaken by robocars within the next five to ten years. Is this belief shared by the people involved in parking and are they getting ready for it?

In need of a crystal ball

Although all those interviewed for this article believe AVs will eventually rule our roads, some also believe that the revolution will be a long time coming.

“I don’t see it happening in my lifetime”, states Professor Michel Lejeune, who teaches sociology of technology at École Polytechnique in Montréal. The technology may be outstanding and almost ready, he says, but having those vehicles on the road involves too many issues for it to be socially acceptable in the short or medium term. He mentions, among other things, the ethical problem of having algorithms make life or death decisions.

“There are so many things that are being said about it, it’s difficult to prepare for this,” says Daniel Germain, Vice-President, Operations at Indigo Canada. “There are studies that say it will take two generations, that perhaps within ten years 40% of the fleet will be converted. But at the same time, the fleet continues to grow, if only because the population keeps growing. I don’t thing the parking industry will be in jeopardy for a long time, because these vehicles will have to be parked somewhere.”

“Nobody has a crystal ball to know how fast it will go”, he concludes.

In the absence of such an apparatus, Barry Kirk, Co-Founder and Executive Director of CAVCOE, the Canadian automated vehicle center of excellence, relies on the experience gained while being involved with numerous concepts and projects around automated vehicles to predict that we’ll see our first AVs in Canadian cities as early as 2020 and that it will mostly be driverless taxis. And indeed, Waymo, the self-driving car firm owned by Google parent Alphabet, recently announced that it will launch a fully autonomous ride-hailing service within the next few months2.

Going parking-free

Regardless of how far away in the future is the looming driverless revolution, big cities begin to realize that they may very well have reached peak parking space and begin to act accordingly.

Here in Canada for instance, Toronto’s first no parking condo tower, The Residences at RCMI on University Avenue, which was built in 2014, offers spots for 300 bikes but no parking except for a car-share facility for up to nine vehicles3.

Other parking-free projects are actually brewing in Toronto:  a 36-storey, 360-unit building, scheduled for completion in October 2019, with parking for less than 80 cars — but an individual bike locker for each of its 360 units; a 15-storey development slated for completion in 2020 that features 12 units — with no car parking, but 30 bicycle spots; a building 16-storey mixed-use building, in the proposal stage, that includes 98 condo units and parking spots for 117 bicycles — and zero for cars4.

In a panel called “City of Tomorrow” taking place at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last January, four major US cities mayors (Atlanta, Chicago, Columbus and Detroit) discussed the decline of the parking garage. For Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, this decline is due in part to rise of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, “but the autonomous car is what will ultimately make them extinct.”5

Atlanta’s Mayor, Kasim Reed talked about a planned $6 billion expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, for which the original proposal included a $1.5 billion parking deck that was trimmed, after the city discussed autonomous cars, to about $800 million.6

How to prepare for a revolution

The looming driverless revolution is affecting billion-dollar projects as well as small cities planning operations. Janice Legace, Manager, Research & Facilitation, Growth & Community for the City of Fredericton, mentions that in her city surface parking lots are being replaced by new buildings because the city’s downtown is densifying. “So, eventually, we’ll have to build offsite garages. And with the AV, do we hold off for a little and see what’s happening? Because we don’t want to build the garages and find that we don’t need them.”

CAVCOE’s Barry Kirk advises caution: “First, become informed, get better educated about the developments of the driverless car. The industry has to be very careful and not build stranded assets that will become a waste of money in 5-10 years time.”

Transportation engineers and city planners should take note: the driverless revolution will beget its own revolution, the drop-off revolution, a revolution that will force them to get creative with existing infrastructure and imagine completely new features.

In a report published in 2016, a research team from Florida State University’s Department of Urban & Regional Planning assesses the impact of AV technology on Florida’s communities. “AVs, they write, “will bring a drop-off revolution to transportation, with users desiring to be picked up and dropped off very close to their origins and destinations, yielding even more complications for system access management. (…) Though drop-offs and pick-ups are a minor feature in today’s transportation system, they are expected to be one of the most important design elements in a world dominated by automated vehicles.6

So how do you prepare for a revolution contingent on so many unknowns and variables that no one can predict when it will be in full bloom, or if it will even happen, with certitude?

We stay on the lookout, says Indigo’s Daniel Germain. “We’re like sponges, we take information everywhere, we look at what’s being done in the market. What reassures us is that for the forecast for the next 10 years is that the fleet will grow faster than this conversion into autonomous vehicles, which means that for the parking industry we won’t see any impact before at least 10 years.”

To materialize, the driverless revolution still needs to overcome many hurdles. But these obstacles are being steadily destroyed by interested parties with the expertise and deep pockets necessary to tackle complex challenges. For instance, until recently, the AV biggest problem in mapping roads in real time was navigating changing weather conditions, specially snow. Mitsubishi Electric (not to be confused with Mitsubishi Motors) recently came up with a method for getting around the snow problem with a “position-augmenting” algorithm, which uses GPS data to correct errors caused by masked roads. The field testing began on 19 September and it is scheduled to begin operating fully in April 2018.7

Even the life or death questions that always finish in a dead end (who will the AV hit? The pregnant woman or the elderly man?) is being tackled by automakers.  Last June, Audi CEO Professor Rupert Stadler announced the Beyond initiative, a new project that intends to move the question out of engineering labs and into the public eye, by launching a conversation between a pool of experts in artificial intelligence, their counterparts in scientific and commercial spheres and the public. The initiative will deal with the enormous potential of piloted and autonomous driving in relation to the ethical and legal questions8.

Some pundits caution that the human specie love affair with the car might hinder or even derail the driverless revolution. But just imagine for an instant that your new car is a robot that will take charge of what is for many urban motorists a major headache: finding a parking spot. This ability may very well become the killer unique selling point that will make the revolution!

 

  1. Parker Magazine, September 2107, Parking in the driverless era. Online: http://canadianparking.ca/parking-in-the-driverless-era/
  2. Waymo Team, November 7, 2017, Waymo’s fully self-driving vehicles are here. Online: https://goo.gl/Dx1D97
  3. CBC News, July 28, 2017, The slow death of urban parking: Don Pittis. Online: https://goo.gl/wq2bZf
  4. Huffington Post, August 10, 2017, Forget Car-Free Buildings. Bike-Only Condos Are Coming. Online: https://goo.gl/QQzFBT
  5. Inverse, Point b, The Self-Driving Car Will Kill the Parking Garage Dead. Online: https://goo.gl/9U1BTY 
  6. April 2016, Envisioning Florida’s Future: Transportation and Land Use in an Automated Vehicle World. Online: https://goo.gl/dLD13i
  7. Alphr, 21 October 2017, Mitsubishi Electric just beat Google to one of self-driving cars’ most significant hurdles. Online: https://goo.gl/nEES6Y
  8. Alphr, June 2017, How Audi is going to answer the life-and-death questions of driverless cars. Online: https://goo.gl/nEES6Y
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