Tesla’s autopilot feature may encourage sprawl

October 21, 2014 | 0 Comments

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced that the auto innovator’s Model S will offer an autopilot feature, reports Wired, which lets the car drive itself in certain conditions. (We’ve reported on other self-driving car developments recently, including an autonomous Cadillac that’s in the works for model year 2017.) While the self-driving function may make some significant strides in vehicle safety, such as a predicted drop in crashes, the feature may also result in greater urban sprawl and increased car commuting, which bode badly for both environment and community.

Suburban sprawl seen from the air

Experts are torn on whether the autonomous car will prove a sprawl-destroyer or an enabler. From MyBiggestFan.

As Ken Laberteaux, a senior scientist at Toyota explains to Wired, quicker, simpler and “perhaps cheaper” transportation will likely make car commuting more attractive. “What a consumer is expected to do is see what they can gain by moving a little further from the job centers or the cultural centers,” Laberteaux says.

What exactly is urban sprawl, and what makes it so detrimental? The Cornell University University Department of Development Sociology terms it simply the “increased development of land in suburban and rural areas outside of their respective urban centers.”

Sprawl is specifically designed around car use, and residents often must rely on vehicles throughout every aspect of daily life, leading to increased emissions and pollution. The sense of community is also compromised, as residents have fewer opportunities to interact outside their vehicles. A recent Smart Growth America report even linked urban sprawl to obesity rates and lack of economic mobility.

Supporters of self-driving cars claim that the technology will lead to benefits including increased ridesharing and a drop in congestion; yet, as Wired notes, this kind of evolution is not likely — at least, not for the time being: “[F]irst, we’ve got to live through the phase of semi-autonomous driving. Those cars will likely need human intervention at least some of the time, so they won’t change the current ownership model.” Yet these halfway cars will likely encourage drivers to commute by car sooner than the driving public will likely adapt to ridesharing.

Reid Ewing, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center — whom also noted those negative implications of sprawl in the Smart Growth America report mentioned above — compares self-driving’s potential impact to the proliferation of superhighways and sub-urbanization that took place in post-war America. “If you can travel at higher speeds with less congestion and you can use your time productively while you’re traveling in a self-driving car, the generalized cost of travel will be less on a vehicle-per-mile basis,” Ewing explains. “Just like when, before the interstate system, people were traveling at 30 miles per hour, there wasn’t nearly the spread of development that there is today.”

These self-driving tech developments come at a time when sprawl itself happens to be on the decline. (New York City, for instance, is experiencing a population growth that outpaces its local suburban areas for the first time since World War II.) But there are options for preemptively containing sprawl spurred on by self-driving cars.

Urban planners can rely on zoning, urban design, and pricing to prevent a backslide away from urbanization, recommends Ratna Amin, director of transportation policy at SPUR, a planning nonprofit. As Amin explained to Wired, “Transit sprawl and autonomous vehicle sprawl, these things happen in the absence of growth management.” Fortunately for many, “We can put boundaries on sprawl.”

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Category: municipal, Transportation

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