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To Park or Not to Park

The rise of autonomous vehicles may lead to the demise of parking spaces

In 2011, the University of California-Berkeley published a report on Parking Infrastructure and the Environment, which revealed that although there are “only” 253 million private cars and light trucks on its roads, America has nearly one billion parking spaces: four spaces for every vehicle. That adds up to nearly 170,000 square kilometres, an area almost as large as Slovenia dedicated solely to parking!

This is the result – and not only in the United States – of regulations that require urban developers to create parking spaces for every house and office that is erected. Yet, parking space never seems to be sufficient in our buzzing cities and this leads to one of many negative consequences. Parking causes pollution.

A 2011 IBM Global Parking Survey, which examined 20 cities on 6 continents, reported that on average drivers spend 20 minutes looking for parking. In fact, 30 to 60% of the cars in any given urban area are driving around looking for a parking space. Donald Shoup, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of California-Los Angeles studied Westwood Village, a small business area near the university, and found that vehicles looking for parking space there consume nearly 180,000 litres of petrol and generate over 730 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Until today, solutions to this problem have been addressed by promoting public transport, car-pooling and exchange parking lots, but a new idea is rising on the horizon: not parking.

Imagine a city served by swarms of self-driving vehicles that can be hailed via smartphone to your doorstep and then drive you to your destination. And then, they move on to the next client. They never stop. They continue to ferret people around and only stop to refuel. At night, when fewer cars are necessary, the vehicles drive themselves out to the suburbs to park where they can also be serviced, if necessary.

Indeed, the cars may even be owned by private individuals. Once, an individual has reached his or her destination, these cars could keep driving around, transporting other passengers and earning them money Uber-style, rather having to sit idly – at an often steep cost – in a parking lot. Naturally, a telematic management system would ensure that private cars return to their owner’s doorstep punctually, when scheduled to do so.

Kara Kockelman, Professor of Transportation Engineering at the University of Texas-Austin, modelled the impact of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles and calculated one such vehicle could replace up to a dozen regular cars. Indeed, if an entire city were to shift to such autonomous driving vehicles, it would require 90% less parking space. Moreover, a paper published by Berkeley Lab Researcher Jeffrey Greenblattof in Nature (July 2015) calculated that such a scenario with autonomous and electric vehicles would also reduce emissions by 90%.

Most interestingly, however, on top of a significantly improved environmental footprint, Prof Kockelman’s model, presents an ideal, profitable and sustainable pursuit. Requested vehicles would typically arrive to where they were called in about 20 seconds, they would bring in a 19% profit on investment per year and rides would cost about US$1 per mile, less than a typical cab fare in most major cities around the world.

At present, we already have cars that parallel park automatically. It would not be a big step for carmakers to produce vehicles that could drive off to park autonomously, fitting snuggly into a minimal space. This, as Carnegie Mellon Civil and Environmental Engineer Constantine Samaras points out, would already be sufficient to no longer have to develop new parking spaces, but our future is brighter.

The convergence between mobile, ICT and automotive innovation is an ongoing revolution that is rapidly transforming our urban landscape. Experts posit that in ten years, or less, our cities may well present a brave, new world of autonomous self-driving vehicles that will reduce congestion and pollution, cost less to insure and maintain, ensure far superior safety and security services and provide a vast range of added benefits, including that of not having to park!

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