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How Will Driverless Cars Change Cities?

Samuel Kling
Traffic on a city street, with yellow taxi cabs

Cities around the world are preparing for the massive disruption of autonomous vehicles. What are some of the opportunities and risks? Here's what you should know.

Perhaps nothing has shaped cities more than transportation. Ships and railroads created dense, compact cities like Chicago and Hamburg, while automobiles made sprawling ones like Houston and greater Melbourne.

What are autonomous vehicles?

A self-driving car, also known as an autonomous vehicle (AV), driverless car, or robo-car, is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and moving safely with little or no human input.

The interior of a driverless car by Volkswagen

Now companies such as Waymo, GM, and Volkswagen are betting big on driverless cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs).

An engineer sits inside an electric car to test drive it

Your car may already have automated features such as adaptive cruise control. But if technological hurdles can be overcome, the biggest effects on cities will likely come from vehicles which require no driver input for control.

What are the benefits?

How can AVs improve the lives of those living and working in global cities?
A Renesas electric car is test driven on a track with wet pavement
Reduce fatal traffic crashes AVs promise to reduce the estimated 94% of fatal traffic crashes—over a million deaths worldwide each year—caused by human error. Low, steady speeds and safe driving patterns in a city can boost safety and quality of life.
An autonomous vehicle shuttle drives in Singapore, with blurred background
Fill of transit gaps City governments predict driverless cars will fill transit gaps. 76% of officials surveyed believe AVs could help with "last mile transit"—the tricky task of connecting travelers from a transit stop to a destination.
A parking lot full of parked cars
Cut back on the need for parking AVs could slash the need for centrally located parking and free up valuable real estate. Cars can drop people at their destination and then drive away to an optimized lot that stores nearly twice as many AVs.
Redirect space for parks Fourteen percent of all land in Los Angeles County is currently devoted to parking—some 18 million spaces. What else could we do with all that space? Parking lots could become parks. Parking lanes could become bike or bus lanes.
A traffic jam on a busy highway in Beijing, China
Improve lane capacity On the street, "platooning" AVs could boost lane capacity significantly. Precise braking and acceleration will enable unprecedented efficiency in dense traffic.
An autonomous vehicle shuttle by Postauto Schweiz in Switzerland
Decreased cost of public transporation Overall, AV travel costs may decline to the cost of mass transit. With convenient point-to-point service, driverless rideshare services may move an ever-larger portion of riders.

What are the risks?

As with most new technology, risks abound with the adaption of AVs in our cities.
A traffic jam on Ramses Street in Cairo
Traffic-related disadvantages Studies predict AVs will encourage people to drive more, not less. Commute distances may increase. That could mean more sprawl and negative environmental effects.
People stand on a crowded train in Manila
Drop in transit ridership An AV-related drop in transit ridership could pose major problems. Even with their increased efficiency, private AVs will remain far less efficient than a subway or bus lane. This means congestion and emissions could skyrocket.
A close-up shot of a person's hands typing on a computer keyboard
Increase in cyberattacks AVs may become targets of cyberattacks, which could cripple urban street networks. Industry players will need to invest in robust cybersecurity.
A woman rides a bike on the street in Milan
Encroach on rights to public streets AVs' technical shortcomings could encroach on others' right to public streets. Infrequent, car-oriented street crossings could replace regular crosswalks. Pedestrians and cyclists may even need to carry sensors to stay safe.
A busy street market in Buenos Aires
Decreased pedestrian activity The street life that makes cities vibrant, like markets and festivals, could be threatened by policies that prioritize AV efficiency and clamp down on pedestrian behavior to prevent crashes.


One thing is clear: AVs can help solve cities’ problems or exacerbate them. Instead of merely accommodating driverless cars, we must decide how they can improve urban life and plan accordingly.

Already, cities are developing task forces to approach the challenge.