The Promise and Peril of Driverless Cars

L to R: Mark de la Vergne, City of Detroit; Kris Carter, City of Boston; Subhrajit Guhathakurta, Georgia Tech; Debra Lam, Georgia Tech; David Freedman, Newsweek

What will the world look like when we’re no longer in the driver’s seat? Researchers, city officials, entrepreneurs, and journalists from across the country gathered at Georgia Tech on December 12 to examine this question. “How Driverless Cars Will Change the World,” hosted by Georgia Tech and Newsweek, looked at how autonomous vehicles (AVs) could change cities for the better or exacerbate our current problems, depending on how we prepare for the future.

After welcome remarks from Georgia Tech Executive Vice President for Research Chaouki Abdallah and Newsweek Global Editor in Chief Nancy Cooper, panelists discussed “The Promise of Driverless Cars.”

Subhrajit Guhathakurta, professor in the School of City and Regional Planning and director of the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization, is researching how cities would change if shared driverless vehicles became our primary mode of transportation. With thoughtful planning, he said, cities can repurpose unused parking spaces into bike lanes, sidewalks, green space, and affordable housing, and businesses can spread out across cities. Guhathakurta urged city planners to “take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls.”

New technology also brings social and cultural change. The panel looked at how humans and AVs can co-exist, suggesting public awareness campaigns and driver’s education on how to interact with overly-cautious AVs.

“There’s a human intuition that’s not being fully addressed yet with technology; we need to address it on a very fundamental level,” said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech. She called AVs “a tool in the larger transportation toolkit that should interact with current modes of transportation.”

The second panel of the day, "Heaven or Hell?" examined potential downsides of AVs. Will they worsen our transportation problems, and what can forward-thinking cities do now to ensure a successful driverless future?

All of the panelists agreed that shared AVs like shuttles and buses are preferred over privately owned driverless vehicles, which would accelerate global warming and increase traffic congestion. “There’s a lot of wasted space in urban environments,” said Kari Watkins, assistant professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

She encourages cities to redesign roads to give priority to shared AVs, and hold the owners of single—or zero—occupancy AVs financially accountable for how often they’re on the road.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor in the School of Architecture and author of the forthcoming book Retrofitting Case Studies, discussed socioeconomic factors related to AVs, saying cities should make public transit AVs accessible to all residents to prevent “an even more exacerbated divide between rich and poor.” She added, “AVs are not a silver bullet, but can make a difference if we plan appropriately.”

Newsweek’s December 14 cover story on driverless vehicles features interviews and op-eds from Dunham-Jones, Guhathakurta, Lam, Watkins, and School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Michael Hunter. Read more:

Will Driverless Cars Make Our Traffic Problems Worse?

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Transform Cities and Suburbs by Ending Traffic Jams, Parking Problems and Road Rage

How Autonomous Vehicles Could Transform the Demographics of U.S. Cities

<p>L to R: Mark de la Vergne, City of Detroit; Kris Carter, City of Boston; Subhrajit Guhathakurta, Georgia Tech; Debra Lam, Georgia Tech; David Freedman, Newsweek</p>

L to R: Fred Guterl, Newsweek; Peter Rander, Argo AI; Kari Watkins, Georgia Tech; David Zipper, German Marshall Fund; Ellen Dunham-Jones, Georgia Tech; Robin Chase, Zipcar co-founder

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