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What if we all gave up our cars for a 24/7 driverless Uber service?

Much has been written about autonomous cars and the implications they might have for our future. I find most of these musings to be fun and fairly obvious: safer roadways that handle more traffic because computers will drive with more precision than distracted humans; cars that navigate themselves to empty parking spaces; relaxing in splendor in a car that looks more like an office, so you can dedicate another hour of your day to sending emails.

We’re missing the point.

Driverless cars will entirely respin the fabric of our communities in ways that play out for many decades

Let me start with a question: if Uber could reliably pick you up anywhere with only 5 minutes notice, in a vehicle entirely suited to your transportation needs of the moment, and deliver you to your destination (anywhere in the country) on average 25% faster than you can drive yourself, would you own a car? And how much would you pay for such a service? $500 per month? Think about it: No car payments. No repair. No insurance. No gas. 5 minute pickup – to anywhere. Would you pay $1000 per month?

Interesting. But its more fun to think about what if we ALL did it  – or at least a large fraction of us. What would our communities begin to look like?

Lets start with our homes:

No garages. Who needs a garage when you don’t have a car? How about a free exercise room for every American family instead. Or at a minimum, garages could be used as they are here in the Bay Area: as storage rooms. We’d certainly design them differently.

Driveways for dropoff. No need to make room for your buddies to park at your house for your superbowl party. Just a convenient little curbside dropoff by the street will do the trick.

No on-street parking. That ugly car parked in front of your house by your annoying neighbor? Gone. City dwellers waking up early to move your car on street cleaning days? Gone.

The implications for our towns and cities are probably even greater. A report from MIT Media Lab states that about 40 percent of gasoline usage in urban centers is people looking for parking places. No more. How much time and gas would we save? Well, at least 40%. But maybe a lot more.

Come to the think of it, who needs parking spaces? Or parking garages? Even moderately dense communities could be served by a fleet of vehicles that is perpetually in motion, assigned by an algorithm to scurry silently and efficiently to the next assignment. Only in rural or sparse suburban communities might there be the need for a small cache of vehicles stored in order to ensure a reliable and responsive quality of service.

Next time you’re in a plane, look out on your departure city as you take off and notice the fraction of your city’s square footage that is dedicated to temporary storage of vehicles. Imagine if 90% of those vehicles – and the associated storage space – were gone. Some might actually become parks or urban farms. 

Speaking of planes, what about airports? No parking garages, no shuttles, no watching the rental car agent type stuff  into her OS2 computer for 30 minutes.

Carpools? That’s easy. The software can do that. And your wallet is credited for your willingness to share space with your friends and coworkers.

These fleets of shared vehicles would naturally be mostly electric. A driverless Uber service would solve the basic challenges associated with today’s electric vehicles (limited range and recharging time). Cars would be recharged as necessary by the algorithm, and assigned tasks based on remaining battery life. Longer journeys might be assigned to special vehicles designed for that purpose – either longer-range electric cars or maybe good old fashioned hybrids.

For the first time since the invention of the automobile, we might actually reverse the incessant paving over of America. Our communities would be safer, cleaner, and more beautiful. No more gas stations on every street corner. Shopping areas could be redesigned as pedestrian-only thoroughfares, where pickup/dropoff points are placed here and there to maximize access and minimize impact. From my own vantage point, there isn’t a reason in the world why University Ave in Palo Alto should have cars on it. We would have access to personal transportation when we need it – and only when we need it – in vehicles that are quieter, cleaner, and entirely suited to our task of the moment.

Now how much would you pay?

Last thought: Who could actually pull this off? Car manufacturers? Um yeah. IBM? Not so much. Apple? No sir. There is one company in the world with the technology, the resources, the influence, the passion, and the kahunas to pull this off. That would be my former employer, Google.

For 8 years, I worked at Google to bring about the revolution known as cloud computing, the impact of which the world is just beginning to understand. But I think the potential of driverless Uber cars is even greater – think of it as cloud commuting.