Toyota Official: Driverless Cars Could Encourage Sprawl

For all the hype surrounding driverless cars, no one knows exactly what their broader implications may be. This week one car designer suggested automated vehicles could deal a setback to trends in the U.S. toward less driving and more sustainable modes.

Will driverless cars promote further urban sprawl? Photo: Wikipedia
Will driverless cars promote more sprawl? Photo: Wikipedia

At the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, Ken Laberteaux, senior principal scientist for Toyota’s North American team studying future transportation, spoke with a Bloomberg reporter about the potential for unwelcome outcomes, including more sprawl.

“U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things,” Laberteaux said. “The pattern we’ve seen for a century is people turn more speed into more travel, rather than maybe saying ‘I’m going to use my reduced travel time by spending more time with my family.’”

He said tolling could be a potential solution, but then went on to question the political practicality of that approach. “We’ve created an entire culture and economy based on the notion that transportation is cheap,” he said.

  • LAifer

    Thank you. This is a big part of the reason that I don’t really care about all this driver-less car talk. So what if you can now get a personalized trip in a vehicle you don’t actually have to operate? The end result is still the same dispersed land use patterns that are unsustainable and environmentally unsound. All this focus on relieving drivers of having to control the vehicles they operate won’t do a thing to address the much larger issues at play on a regional, national and global level.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Exactly. I’m glad to see this acknowledged at this level. And I am surprised, and would be encouraged if I thought there were any cause for optimism, that an auto-industry official (be it noted, not an employee of a U.S. company) realizes this will not be a good thing.

    Back on the cycle of endless sprawl, with the added bonus of a gigantic database of all of our (ever more car-dependent) travel: that, and only that, will be the result of driverless technology.

  • Chris

    I don’t see this as a huge risk as long as driverless cars become the norm (or the only legal standard) and are priced more expensively than existing cars. If car share is encouraged (and that would be a huge plus of driverless cars: car drives me to work, it drives home and picks up the kids for school, comes back and takes me to lunch with a client, goes back and takes the kids home, picks me up after work, etc…) it encourages density because that model is only feasible as long as the car can make quick trips in between uses. The end result ideally is fewer cars on the road even with the same number of trips for all users.

  • Andy Chow

    This driverless car thing is actually retail unfriendly. Part of the strategy of retail and service sector business is to be located at the right place and able to pull customers on a spontaneous basis. With automated cars it would actually be a barrier (it would be a hassle to reprogram the car to take a detour to an ice-cream shop.) The way to get around it is to pay Google which would obviously can promote it on their vehicle platform.

  • weshigh

    Even better, you are part of a pool of cars. Takes you to work, then picks up someone else and take them to their destination. The whole driving back and forth is a huge waste when all you need is a passenger compartment.

  • weshigh

    Took me less than 10secs to pull up ice cream shop on my phone and get directions. It shouldn’t be any harder than that to change destinations once self driving cars actually come to market. I think there are plenty of issues with them, but I don’t think easily changing destinations will be that big of an issue.

  • twk

    So with driverless cars can now have zero occupancy cars clogging the roads. Maybe we can have special lanes for cars with people in them.

  • C Monroe

    I see it as a neutral technology. Yes it encourages people to be able to live in less dense places but at the same time it encourages work/commerce to be more dense for the reason of not needing such huge parking lots for cars. The driverless car has greater impact if it would be used as car share(which makes perfect sense).

  • C Monroe

    Of course Toyota does not like the driverless car, well sales of vehicles would probably go down in the long run, Why do you think that Google is the main pusher besides some piecemeal funding to universities to study it from the other automakers?

  • It really depends on how the cars are used. Driverless taxis, buses, etc. have potential for reducing the total number of cars due to inefficiencies with human drivers (i.e. lunch breaks, sleep.) It’s still too early to make a meaningful prediction.

  • lop

    Better taxi service makes it more convenient to not own a car. Paying for every trip encourages other, cheaper modes when feasible. Easier to charge a driverless share car for the roads it drives on than one that a person owns, less of a perceived privacy issue. Predictable behavior from cars following the letter of the law, protecting pedestrians and cyclists encourages those modes. Cheaper to operate transit vehicles can encourage shared transport. (the driver is ~70% of the cost of bus service). The technology can make urban living more convenient. The proper regulatory framework to prevent sprawl would be needed though.

  • fran farrell

    Let’s see. the Google Proof of Concept: goes no faster than 25 mph on city streets mapped to the nearest centimeter when empty so that anything that moves can be avoided. ‘Don’t see how that will drive people to live in the exurbs.

  • DTurner

    Parking would also be a lot easier. On-street parking matters less if your car can park itself in a parking lot.

  • Brandon

    having a let me off now option would be a necessity. A option for manual control for the foreseeable future is also likely in case of system failure.

  • Eric Panzer

    I disagree that the trends you and Laberteaux identify are foregone conclusions. In Laberteaux’s case, he has a clear business incentive to push us toward a future where people continue to own and operate their own private vehicles.

    One of the greatest promises of driverless cars is that they can dramatically decrease the cost of services like Uber, perhaps even to the point where they become cost-competitive with individual car ownership, even for people who must make daily car trips. With enough people using the system, you could create elaborate, automated casual carpooling algorithms that would further decrease costs and overall vehicle traffic. It’s possible to envision a future where a car picks up three to five people with nearby destinations, and then drops them off one after the other; or, alternatively, the car is continually picking up and dropping off people in a manner that keeps the car more or less constantly moving and full of passengers. Such a future is arguably no more or less realistic than the notion of an entirely autonomous driverless vehicle.

    Even if we end up with a future where driverless cars are individually owned, they could still have a positive impact in terms of sprawl and urban form. Much of the reason sprawl is so sprawly is that each use needs an enormous amount of parking to meet it’ maximum anticipated parking demand. With driverless cars, it would be much easier to centralize parking, since the cars could theoretically simply take themselves there after dropping off passengers. This would mean only needing to meet the aggregate peak demand for parking for a particular area, and this would likely be much smaller than the sum of the theoretical peak demands for each individual use. Moreover, even if you can’t decrease the absolute amount of parking, being able to centralize it has positive implications for walkability.

    In the end, how driverless cars will impact society, urban design, and the economy remains to be seen. Nevertheless, when it comes to predicting the future of the automobile, I’ll take the predictions of auto company executives with a grain of salt.

  • Alex Brideau III

    You’re getting close to describing a personal rapid transit system, which could make sense in many urban and suburban areas. If some PRT vehicles could be publicly owned and some privately owned, you might have an interesting hybrid transit system.

  • Alex Brideau III

    At some point we’ll need to begin restricting driver-controlled cars from certain roads. This will increase safety for all road users as it takes driver unpredictability (speeding, drunk driving, distracted driving, general carelessness, etc.) out of the equation on these streets.

  • Alex Brideau III
  • Alex Brideau III

    I think it makes more sense to segregate driverless cars from driver-controlled cars, regardless of their occupancy. The former would be more predictable and less prone to congestion while the latter would tend to be more erratic in their driving style and thus more likely to create traffic jams.

  • Alex Brideau III

    My hunch is that by the time they get into wide use, driverless cars would/could receive in-vehicle advertisements that would allow the occupant to reroute their vehicle to an advertiser’s location with a simple press of a button or touchscreen.

  • HuckieCA

    Google is not the only one working on automated vehicles.

  • HuckieCA

    Google is not the main pusher of automated vehicles, nor are they the largest research program in the field. They are the company that gets the most press, and interestingly, one of the only companies working on automated vehicles that doesn’t actually need to turn a profit on them in the near, medium, or possibly even long-term. It is highly incorrect to say that Toyota doesn’t like or even doesn’t have automated vehicle research programs. One would need only Google their activities in the field to see otherwise. The article makes a very valid point based on hundreds of years of data. Increased speed of travel has lead to increased sprawl, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine a world where lower-speed automated shuttles take you from a suburb to a high-speed transit connection, that gets you to work in SV in under 45 minutes. Don’t you think a lot of people would choose to live where the space is more open and the housing costs are cheaper?

  • 94103er

    Are you kidding, Andy? Don’t you realize that it’s the human-driven automobile which essentially killed Main-Street retail? That the only feeble antidote was the indoor shopping mall, which attempted to recreate a dense car-free area but only further destroyed more towns’ downtown areas, and eventually made people realize they just concentrated urban decay?

  • Andy Chow

    I am talking about the auto oriented strip malls (which are all over America) that could be losing businesses because it would be a hassle to reprogram the computer.

  • Andy Chow

    With all the smart phones and smart features, I still find the most reliable way to get a phone number from an app on my phone to the dialer is to write it on a piece of paper. I have little confidence regarding app designers and that they wouldn’t use the automated system as a ad platform. It may not matter if the retailer is located in a high traffic area with good parking, if they don’t pay Google as much as the their competitors are, they could be losing businesses just because it would be so damn hard to redirect the car.

  • Andy Chow

    Which allows Google to further monopolizing advertising/search business currently from online to physical.

  • C Monroe

    Did you see my other comment on this. It is a neutral technology. Yes it can have people living farther from work but also work/commerce would be more dense do to less need for parking. If car share is adopted, that would mean less sales for Toyota.

  • commandersprocket

    Yes, people will move away from urban areas if they can. Yes this will allow them to move farther away. The american dream is a home like people see on TV (Happy Days, Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver) that equals sprawl. You have to change people’s minds before you change their desires. What TV characters on TV are successful, families, and live in an apartment? Transportation in the US is cheap, and driverless cars will make it way, way cheaper. It will also destroy about 20% of the jobs. The good news is that the driverless taxis will be more sustainable (cost to operate an electric car for 200k miles per year make a gas car a non-starter). Unless we find a way to make temporary Archologies real and desirable, this is the direction we’re headed.

  • commandersprocket

    Sorry, I’ve seen the Google cars with “drivers” reading their laptops at highway speed on Highway 280 past Santa Clara, and that was 3 years ago. The prototype vehicle is just a friendly “show” for people to get used to the idea, the technology is already mature enough for 99% of the driving people do. The automakers are essentially dead when the automated taxi appears (the cost of owning a car will look absurd compared to the cost of rent on demand… it’s the difference between buying a DVD every time you want to watch a movie and having a Netflix subscription)…only the DVD costs $30k+.

  • C Monroe

    Family affair, different strokes. There are a few.

  • commandersprocket

    Sales would “probably go down”? Over the course of a decade sales would plummet. Car companies are going to be destroyed when this happens. The cost of owning a car is $9122 per year at 15,000 miles. If you bought a new Tesla and outfit it with a $30,000 self driving system ($130,000) and it was able to drive people 14 hours a day, 7 days a week at 40mph it would drive 204,400 miles per year, you could keep those cars around for 2 years and charge $ .32 a mile (half what it costs to own a car) and turn a profit (that assumes you throw away the car every two years, don’t take business deductions etc).

  • commandersprocket

    You are correct, thank you. I agree that people that want to live in Manhattan aren’t going to be want for a suburban neighborhood.

  • C Monroe

    Yes it is Hollywood glamorizing the suburbs because the only other families that live inside urban areas that are not Manhattan usually are struggling families like the single mother raising her two teenage daughters on One day at a time(Cleveland?) or the poor black family in Good Times(Harlem, but still Manhattan). Usually when you see a middle/upper middle/rich people living in urban settings they are usually single(Seinfield, Friends), Older Married whose children are grown(Jeffersons) or are a minority(Cosby Show).

  • HuckieCA

    Well, let’s run with that idea for a second and assume that the car is completely self-driving (able to operate without a human in it). How does having work areas being more dense help? Once you are at work, what is your car going to do? Let’s be honest, there are major peaks and troughs in our society’s transportation demands. Even with a car sharing/robotaxi model, if you have enough vehicles to handle peak demand, you will have too many vehicles once the peak subsides. They are going to have to go park themselves somewhere. Especially if you have a bunch of people coming in from the suburbs, and then flooding the commerce area with extra vehicles that now want to utilize themselves at taxis. As said in an earlier comment, once a car can go driverless, we now have the possibility of traffic being generated with zero occupancy vehicles, and that could really make traffic worse.

  • ndw_dc

    Full House. Despite being a terrible show, they lived in an extremely desirable connected townhome in San Francisco. Some people want their own palatial estates in the exurbs, but demand for quality homes that are also in highly walkable areas in thriving cities is certainly as high or likely much higher for than for homes in sprawl-ville. The Tanner home would be worth many millions today. (Along the same lines – although not a TV show – was the living situation in the film Mrs. Doubtfire.)

  • Alex Brideau III

    That’s assuming only Google rolls out driverless cars. Who knows? Might we see a Samsung GalTaxi, an Apple iCar, a Microsoft Bing-mobile? 🙂

  • Win Barber

    commander sprocket: :, The Cosby Show (Huxtables) was set in Brooklyn, NY, and it was the #1 viewed show in the nation, in the 1980s.

  • Win Barber

    The Cosby Show (Huxtables) was set in Brooklyn, NY, and it was the #1 most viewed show in the nation, 30 years ago.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    Self driving cars doesn’t solve the problem that there is nothing to do in the suburbs. Hopefully the reasons families are drawn to cities is to culturally stimulate their children, not just because of the good public transit. Long commute or not, I’d rather my kid have more to do then drinking, drugs and under age sex.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    Robotaxies could use load balancing to move excess out of city center when not in use.

    Or personal cars could park millimeters away from each other (since they could drop you off first) and then block each other in, coordinating exit routines with other cars instead of leaving passage ways in parking lots.

    But instead of imagining possibilities, we need to deal with realities. We are not close to cars being able to handle everything NYC can throw at them. And when the first person gets killed, who is going to go to jail? Both the driver and cat company will pass the buck, making driverless cars into blameless killing machines (which is at least slightly worse then what we have now).

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