Fleets of autonomous cars may one day end the hassles of urban parking

Living on Earth
Autonomous car

Fleets of autonomous cars could end the need for large parking lots, particularly in cities, according to some car and urban planning experts. 

Norbert Aepli, Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.O

Looking for parking in a city is frustrating for the driver and bad for the climate, as circling cars emit unnecessary pollution. One possible answer to this parking problem is not so far in the future: self-driving cars.

In a recent essay in Mother Jones magazine, reporter Clive Thompson says fleets of coordinated, self-driving cars could bring an end to parking as we know it and help make our urban future cheaper, greener and much more pleasant.

“There are some interesting trends afoot,” Thompson says. “Here’s the thing about self-driving cars: It’s likely that by the time these things get fully licensed to be on the road — which is maybe 10, 15, 20 years now — they will probably be deployed not individually, but mostly in fleets. So, your local taxi company will just buy 200 self-driving cars, or the city might decide that it's going to create a kind of a public transit thing with cars. They'll buy thousands of self-driving cars. Uber and Lyft are actively researching to build their own self-driving cars.”

Right now the average car spends 95 percent of its time sitting in one place — parked at home or at work — which takes up a huge and wasteful amount of space. Thompson calculated the square mileage we use for parking is about the size of Connecticut. All sorts of problems stem from that amount of parking, Thompson says.

“On just an aesthetic level parking is pretty ugly,” he says. “[And] they produce a lot of runoff. A big rain hits a massive parking lot, the water's got nowhere to go so it rushes at the edges and it rips the topsoil off of whatever field it encounters. So parking lots cause environmental problems, too.”

Parking lots also encourage excessive driving because of the difficulty finding a parking spot. Studies show circling around looking for parking dramatically increases the amount of time we spend driving. One study done in Thompson’s Brooklyn neighborhood found that 30 to 60 percent of passing cars were looking for parking.

“They're not going anywhere, they're no longer transferring people from point A to point B, they're now just circling,” Thompson says.

In theory, a fleet of self-driving cars servicing a large or mid-sized town would create an urban environment in which if you need to go somewhere, you pull out your phone and call for a car and "a car comes zipping right up to you — and maybe there's somebody already in it, [maybe] it’s intelligent carpooling,” Thompson says. “The person in the car is going in the same direction as you, [so] this is going to cost you almost nothing because you're sharing the cost.”

People will still be using cars all day long, but they won't be cars we own, Thompson says. “And the thing with those cars is that they are not going need to park — ever. They will basically be just be driving and driving and driving around, ferrying people around in this very intelligent, efficient way. So this is the vision.”

It’s also part of a cultural shift — kind of a one-two punch that's moving urban areas towards the end of parking: self-driving cars and a generation of people that are less interested in owning their own car.

“More and more, younger people are living in more densely packed areas and they're discovering that in those situations they can really move around pretty easily without driving,” Thompson says. “For them, autonomy is about having a phone, being able to communicate all day long when they want to, and you can't use your phone while you're driving. Those are rival activities, and they would rather use their phones than drive.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood