Autonomous vehicles: Cities must prepare for new mobility

By Wes Guckert

When you talk about “driverless” cars, images of Knight Rider’s KITT Car or scenes from the science fiction film "Minority Report" may come to mind.

While it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of self-driving cars, most car manufactures are utilizing significant resources to create vehicles reliant on technology, not humans, to go from point A to point B.  Google and Lexus are two companies that have already unveiled driverless vehicles.

The automation of vehicles is accelerating, catalyzed by substantial private investment, successful demonstrations and significant public discussion. In addition, these types of vehicles will shift decisions regarding existing and planned transportation infrastructure.

With all the different language in use, it is worth taking a step back to explain the differences. Connected vehicles communicate anonymously and send data to other vehicles and infrastructure. Basically, the vehicles “talk” to one another, so they can determine where they are in the traffic stream.

On the other hand, an autonomous vehicle – different from automated vehicles - could take on several forms, such as a self-driving vehicle or a partially autonomous vehicle that may utilize adaptive cruise control or make adjustments that keep your car staying inside its lane. A fully “autonomous” vehicle carries all of the necessary sensors, decision-making software and control features to “see” the environment around it and actually drive itself without input or command from the outside.  It does not rely on communications from other vehicles.  It responds to what it “senses” around it.  Autonomous vehicles, however, cannot detect traffic situations that block its sensors.

Meanwhile, automated vehicles allow certain driving functions (acceleration, braking, steering) to be machine activated by technology built into the vehicle.

What Should Cities Do?

Cities and states need to become knowledgeable of these new modes of transportation now. A few more tips are courtesy of Mobility Lab, a leading source of information to increase awareness and education about better transportation options.

Understand What is Unfolding: If regions sit back and do nothing, mobility companies will still go forward. Companies are already collaborating with any willing partner, whether it’s a university, states, or cities. So, the real questions need to address how services like driverless vehicles roll out and how soon this will begin to unfold.

Set the big picture: You don’t need to slog through a four-year-long visioning process, but cities need to set a vision and expectations related to equitable service, data sharing, and use of public assets and infrastructure up front. Cities need to envision the role each mode plays, including public transit, local buses, active transportation, private cars, and future modes such as driverless transit.

Set the priority on transit: For the most part, the bigger the vehicle, the higher the mobility performance. Sure, driverless cars reduce the room between vehicles and supposedly help the flow of traffic, but all those cars still need the value drain of parking. Cities need to make sure conversations on driverless cars are less about individual vehicles and more about optimizing the economic power of land use plus transportation.

Design new nodes: This is the most important point for cities. Uber uses “smart routes” to suggest collection points for multiple riders, thus reducing the time needed to pick up disparate fares. As mobility companies grow and proliferate, the competition for convenient curbside collection points will be fierce. Now there’s an opportunity to invent a new kind of TOD for flexible transportation.


That may be the $64,000 question. No one really knows how fast or how quickly these types of scenarios are going to emerge.  Groups like, Urban Land Institute, the Transportation Research Board, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, are all trying to pinpoint a general time. No one knows just yet. It might be five years, 10 years or it could be longer.  I suspect that it is going to start to occur within the next five years. 

More in-depth planning discussions are needed, so that, when the time comes, governments are more prepared to deal with autonomous and connected/automated vehicles.

Wes Guckert, PTP, is president & CEO of The Traffic Group, a leading 30-year-old traffic engineering and transportation planning firm headquartered in White Marsh, Md. For more information,  contact the author Wes at or visit the website


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