Getting ready for shared autonomous vehicles

cartoon of autonomous vehiclePhoto: Shutterstock Fleets of shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) will be on our roads within a decade as part of mobility services offered by both car and technology companies, says Professor Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the U of M.  “This transportation revolution will have a profound effect on our infrastructure and land use as well as on employment, the environment, and the economy,” he says.

Below, Fisher provides insights for community leaders and planners to prepare for these changes.

A parallel transition?

“This transition may seem unprecedented, but we have gone through something like it before. Over a century ago, we switched from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles because the latter were cheaper, cleaner, and safer. Most people will switch to SAVs for the same reasons.

“The transition from horses to cars in the early 20th century happened within a two-decade period, slowed down because of WWI. The coming transition to SAVs will happen just as fast or faster, given the greater speed of our economy and the greater cost savings at stake. The infrastructure and land-use decisions we’re making right now will be affected by this transition.”

The role of insurance

Tom FisherTom Fisher “Drivers cause most crashes. As people move to shared mobility systems because of lower costs, the number of drivers will shrink, which will increase insurance rates. That will prompt more people to stop driving, which will shrink the base even more, raising rates further to the point at which auto insurance—where it is still available—will become prohibitive to all but a very few. Another economic factor will be reductions in healthcare costs, as driving—the most hazardous daily activity we do—disappears.”

The benefits

“SAVs will mostly be owned by mobility service companies that provide on-demand transportation. This will greatly reduce the cost of transportation, greatly expand mobility to the millions of people who cannot drive, and greatly lower the environmental impacts of moving people and goods. SAVs’ electric operation will decrease air and noise pollution, and their continuous use during the day will largely eliminate the need for on-site parking stalls, lots, ramps, and garages. And SAVs will save thousands of lives and eliminate hundreds of thousands of injuries each year.”

The costs

Unlike current roadways (top), streets with SAVs will leave space for other uses such as outdoor eating or green infrastructure.Unlike current roadways (top), streets with SAVs will leave space for other uses such as outdoor eating or green infrastructure. “As with any major technological shift, SAVs will disrupt some people’s lives. The millions who make their living selling, maintaining, and driving cars and trucks, for example, will experience substantial unemployment unless they can transition into higher-skilled mobility service work. The public sector, which currently gets revenue from gas taxes, parking meters, and traffic tickets, will also take a financial hit, although the decreased amount of infrastructure needed and the increased amount of higher-value land freed up may offset the losses.”

Design Center’s role

“The Minnesota Design Center stands ready to help communities prepare for this change. We have developed suggested language for incorporation into comprehensive plans, with accompanying drawings that show the physical impacts (see sample at right). Our researchers welcome the opportunity for conversation.”

Please see the center’s website for details.

Infrastructure and land-use impacts

Streets and roads

SAVs may require only one eight-foot-wide travel lane in each direction, with the occasional pullover for dropping off and picking up riders. This leaves a lot of space for other uses. One transition strategy would be to use temporary measures—such as restriped roads and movable planters—to narrow the width and number of travel lanes at low cost.

Residential streets and garages

As garages are no longer needed to park vehicles, they might be able to be converted to such uses as accessory dwelling units, working space, and recreational or retail activities. This may require greater flexibility in terms of zoning to allow for mixed uses and more shared open space.

Parking ramps

SAVs will make parking ramps as currently used largely unnecessary. Within the life of most of these structures, they will no longer be needed to store large numbers of vehicles, and they may become places for SAVs to park in the middle of the night. To minimize the demolition of parking ramps, from now on, all should be designed to have flat floors, with inclines or spirals that can be taken out in the future as ramps get converted to other uses. These structures should also have a large enough floor-to-floor height (12 feet or more) that they can transform into housing, office, or production space. Finally, parking ramps need to be designed with sufficient loading capacity to accommodate future uses.

Parking lots

A majority of surface parking lots can be converted to other uses. This will require a re-examination of parking requirements and an incentive system to encourage or allow property owners to transition their surface parking lots into other, more beneficial uses.


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