Neil Salmond has the same fascination as I do with the prospect of this technology – the autonomous vehicle – that is already being incorporated into automobiles.  He passes along a few videos that give you a taste of one virtual proposal: the PAT (People And Things), out of Toronto.

Here’s the slick version (worth playing just for the hypnotic soundtrack):


And here’s what the experience might look like from the inside:


As unlikely  (or unnerving) as a driverless car may seem, it’s on its way, probably sooner than we’re expecting.  (Another story here.)

Neil also has a friend (another Neil, named McGuigan) “who has given robotaxis at least as much thought as me and just published this little list of their local implications” – here.   He takes speculation in some intriguing directions.

  • The car insurance industry will cease to exist. These cars aren’t going to crash. Even if there are hold-outs that drive themselves, insurance would be so expensive they couldn’t afford it, as no one else would need it.
  •  If the cars don’t crash, then the auto collision repair / auto body industry goes away. The car industry also shrinks as people don’t have to replace cars as often.
  • Long-haul truck driving will cease to exist. Think how much money trucking companies will save if they don’t have to pay drivers or collision and liability insurance. That’s about 3 million jobs in the States. Shipping of goods will be much cheaper.
  • On that note, no more bus drivers, taxi drivers, limo drivers.
  • Meter maids. Gone. Why spend $20 on parking when you can just send the car back home? There goes $40 million in parking revenue to the City of Vancouver by the way.

Some of my thoughts:  How many cars will we actually need if a relative handful out on the road full time could replace the millions that remain inactive 95 percent of the time?  And what happens to the space, particularly parking lots, that is freed up?

Good-bye not just taxis and meter maids but even transportation cycling?

What about the legal implications, especially once it’s clear that the technology does a better job of driving than human beings?  Should we even allow people to have control of their cars if it results in a higher rate of accidents, especially fatalities, than would otherwise occur?  Will liability insurance skyrocket for hands-on driving, accelerating the move to automation?  Or will the political resistance override the risks?

And since transportation always impacts land-use and urban form, what’s that mean for how our cities will be shaped?

We welcome the speculation.


  1. May I be the first to use the word “Frankencars” ?

    I’m usually underwhelmed by this kind of grandiose super-tech solution to what is essentially a human problem. And, I await some detail on what changes need to be made in the roadway structure to enable this vision to go forward — sensor networks anyone? And how, I wonder, does the Frankencar sense small objects like the inevitable child or dog?

    Further wondering — what will the N.A. advertising industry do without the $6B it currently gets yearly to sell hyper-powerful gigantic vehicles on the basis of speed, power, independence and status enhancement?

  2. Neil S here. Thanks for all the recent nods Gordon.

    Ray – Sport is different. Horses are still used for sport and entertainment.

    Ken – Look up google’s videos, especially Thrun’s TED talk The $70 000 LIDAR can easily detect children and dogs. Google’s car has done 400 000km, urban and highway.

    Gordon – regrading utility cycling, I’m happily optimistic. The “chic” resurgence in recent years is partly about recessionary/youthful thrift, but mostly I’d say about rediscovering the joy of slow cycling in cities: autonomy, sense of place, faces on the street. Remember you’d still have to call and wait on a robotaxi, whereas you could walk to the nearest Bixi station or unlock your own bike (ample parking spaces in the robocar world) and go. Given a car-free lane (or even quasi-car free streets) simple physics dictates that the bike is just best for most urban trips.

    Regarding transit, none of the recent 2040/2050 plans from Translink and CoV mention this technology so they’re going to be blind-sided. The biggest impediment to more transit use is long headways, and the biggest reason for that scheduling is the cost of the driver. Today, without a mass market, the LIDAR costs just one year’s salary: $70 000. Software development isn’t cheap, but trends downwards pretty quickly.

    I want someone to stand up Kennedy-like and demand a New Flyer/UBC-developed robobus to supplement the 99 b-line before the end of this decade.

    In terms of urban form, some fear this will enable sprawl. But congestion is still a function of separation of land uses, so won’t go away because of a change in mode. Convoys of skinny robocars might help a bit, but still not as much as transit-serviceable, walkable mixed-use destinations at either end of a commute. And as carshare firms have shown, once people don’t have the sunk cost of the car, they use (and so will support, politically) other modes far more than they expected to.

    Full techno-optimism: robocars are the killer app for electric vehicle start-ups (Coda, Tesla, etc.), and will buy us a few decades climate-wise during which we can retrofit the suburbs into real complete villages and cities that need fewer daily vehicle-miles.

  3. The reality is automated automobiles (auto-autos?) are going to be here and they going to get here fast. And this is, as they say, a ‘game changer.’

    A couple of ideas off the top of my head:

    1. This is basically ‘Personal Rapid Transit’ (PRT) writ large and practically attainable. But while most PRT schemes to date are either hopelessly naive or scams, this could work. Mostly. As has been noted and commented elsewhere, any PRT system ultimately runs into the same problems as any system based on single occupancy vehicles, with traffic jams and infrastructure being the biggest one. As Neil S mentions this is physics. Automated skinny cars tinker at the edges of that and increase efficiency, but a highway full of single occupancy vehicles will never be as efficient moving people as say a Skytrain line.

    2. Our notions of car ownership are changing fast and this will kill any lingering sense that a car is anything other than what it is: a means of conveyance. Hobbyists and enthusiasts will still have their own personal cars and I suspect that there will be locations set aside for their use. But given the ability of auto-autos to essentially eliminate accidents, I expect that directly operating a motor vehicle will be a thing of the past.

    3. Some sprawl supporters view electric powered auto-autos as their saviour, a way to shut up all the environmentalists and also deal with pesky traffic jams. Hooray, we can kill public transit once and for all! Except, it’s not going to work that way because the physics simply won’t support it and building more lanes of freeway is still going to be wrecking our local environments. And in Metro Vancouver where we have very real physical barriers to growth too? And no suburb will ever provide the wealth of experience that a proper city can. Still, there will be renewed push for suburbanization in the wake of this technology.

    4. The biggest risk to public transit from the arrival of auto-autos is that there will be a push to make them a public utility. That would be a huge mistake. Computerized buses will obviously be phased in, but public agencies should not be in the business of providing single occupancy vehicle use. With the de-personalization of car ownership and cars being relegated to just being a service, any transit agency that started operating them would probably be doomed pretty fast. We do not want to be subsidizing single occupancy vehicles, even if they use the hopes of little children as fuel and the hand of God as driver. We’ll be stuck in the same situation we are today, trying to build more and more freeway to keep up with more and more demand while wrecking our own health and having the government subsidizing it.

    5. Following up on thought number 4: auto-autos are the best chance that’s ever come along to make sure that you really are paying for what you use when you travel anywhere on publicly own asphalt. You’ll be taxed right down to the last centimetre used. But with luck, it will be the end of government subsidizing single occupancy vehicle use.

    6. Rubber-on-asphalt…. Not really all that energy efficient. I expect some places will start trying alternatives, including possibly standard-gauge rail. As long as the computer onboard can talk to a central computer to mange switches, it might work. There’s probably other options in this vein that I can’t conceive of that might work even better.

    1. Regarding 4., I think you’ve conflated multiple ideas there. A monopoly would be bad, whether public or private. Public ownership might be bad if badly run (some say inevitable) but it’s not the only alternative business model to private for-profit.

      For example, if zipcar offers a robotaxi service, we’ll all be paying into one company’s profits. Whereas if Modo gets there first (or alongside, as at present) coop members will collectively own a robotaxi fleet.

      The market might segment by geography, or by comfort and extras, like the cellphone market. Roaming fees may apply (“as a roboModo member would you like to wait 5 minutes, or 2 minutes for a nearby competior’s robotaxi that will cost more”)

      With the good dynamic detailed congestion pricing you allude to, competition shouldn’t mean redundant fleets. Good land use planning will make non-SOV modes best in truly urban T4-6 environments.

      1. You make some really good points here and I agree with you that public ownership and private-for-profit are not the only two options available. Personally, I don’t believe that public ownership is naturally a bad thing, if anything, I think our society has gone too far in favouring private companies. I also am very supportive of co-operatives and hope to see co-operative businesses become larger players in our economy.

        Comment #4 was informed, in part, by my reading and following of the aforementioned PRT schemes (and scams) that have cropped up over the years. Most of those never got off the drawing board but somehow a dedicated group of people manage to keep themselves employed trying to sell vapourware to various cities and transit agencies.

        This isn’t vapourware but it isn’t a replacement for buses and trains (although if I was a bus driver, I’d be looking for a different line of work in the next decade) and high capacity transit vehicles. We can’t replace Translink’s fleet of buses and Skytrains with 2 seater auto-autos only moving one or two people at a time. I also don’t think Translink is likely to be an agency that attempts that, but I could see other North American cities attempting it. And I think that they would be financially underwater very fast.

        Good planning can and will obviously avoid a lot of problems, however, there is still a lot of inertia in the suburb+freeway model of development, even in the Lower Mainland. It’s going to require a lot of careful thought and planning to ensure that the arrival of auto-autos does not trigger a new wave of freeway building and suburbanization.

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