The Driverless Car Rumbles Toward the City

By Donald Christiansen

More than three years ago, in a column on this same topic, I wrote that I could not believe that our streets would ever be filled with self-driving cars. Not surprisingly, proponents of autonomous vehicles (AVs) like Tesla, Volvo, and others paid little heed, but forged ahead in their AV developments and experimental deployments.

A fundamental question centers not on whether an AV can be developed and manufactured in quantities matching that of traditional cars, and eventually at competitive pricing, but rather in what environments it can be profitably used.

Two primary areas of use are considered: (1) long distance freeways and (2) heavily congested cities. In the former it is assumed that individually-owned AVs would be the norm, but that in cities the ownership could be largely by commercial fleet owners or by the cities themselves. It is in the latter use that the greatest benefit might result but also where the greater challenges lie. In highly populated areas like New York City, proponents of AVs envision them as replacements for taxis and Uber-like transport, along with their associated drivers. During weekday commuting hours, consequent congestion points would be at commuter train terminals and bus or subway terminals. In theory fewer AVs would be needed because of the high occupancy of each, and this could lessen overall commuting time.

Computer systems overseen by the AV fleet operators would be responsible for matching a particular commuter’s needs with available AVs. How frequently a commuter might be required to transfer from one AV to another has not been widely discussed. And to what extent fleet AVs could supplant or replace urban rail transport or buses as a portion of commuter travel is open to question. In the AV scenario, cities might elect to ban driven vehicles, and possibly even commuter-owned AVs. Police vehicles and ambulances would continue to have unrestricted access. Street signage would generally require redoing to meet the needs of the AVs, as might many road surfaces and intersection design. Pedestrians might be banned from all road surfaces for safety reasons.
Many municipal transportation experts see these potential changes as detrimental to living conditions for city residents, while others view them as providing new opportunities for residents. Its proponents believe the AV can relieve the heavy car congestion in cities and thus help match those earlier times when many large areas were accessible only to pedestrians, and when safe areas for bicyclists were also readily available.

If large fleets of city AVs are electric rather than gas powered, they might then be charged at fleet-owned charging stations with charging schedules based on algorithms to place the needed numbers of AVs in service at any given time.

Legal issues and commercial interests will dominate as efforts are made to replace parts of a city’s transportation system with AVs. Samuel Schwartz, who served as the New York City Department of Transportation’s chief engineer, notes that the lack of laws governing AVs provides an opportunity “to get new laws right and revise existing laws wisely [and thus] to set policy that works for everyone and doesn’t favor just car makers.” He believes that individual states should be able to prohibit AVs in cities with a population exceeding one million until logistics, networking, and issues like pedestrian safety are worked out. In any case, the cost to a city in planning, designing, and carrying out the unpredictably complex structural changes required to accommodate an AV fleet would itself be unpredictable, as would the unexpected delays and inconveniences to commuters and other travelers during the transition.


An Open Question

The proponents of AVs for inner city transportation note that single driver cars now dominate in commuter transportation, and that multi-passenger AVs could greatly decrease the number of vehicles (along with the parking facilities they require) in a city like New York. But wait a minute! What about the projections that significantly fewer people will be commuting from urban homes to city jobs but instead will work from home? Little mention has been made of its possible effect on the size of (or even the need for) the AV fleets envisioned in future decades. Feel free to check with me in, say, 2050. We can then review the role that autonomous vehicles have actually played in meeting our transportation needs.


Schwartz, S.I., No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future, Public Affairs (Hatchett Book Group), 2018.

Spieler, C., Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit, Island Press, 2018.

English, J., “Why Did America Give Up on Mass Transit? (Don’t Blame Cars.),” CityLab Daily, 31 Aug. 2018.


Small, A., “Denver Radically Expanded Its Transit. So Why Are More People Driving Cars?”  CityLab Daily, 2 Nov. 2017.

Briggs, M., and Ma B., “Diminishing Roadblocks: The Journey to Autonomous Vehicles,” Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, retrieved 16 Jan. 2019.

Kalra, N., “What Autonomous Vehicles Could Mean for American Workers,” Rand Corporation Commentary, Aug.29, 2017.  retrieved 15 Jan. 2019.

Goodman, P., “Advantages and Disadvantages of Driverless Cars,” Nov. 2018, retrieved 16 Jan. 2019.

Brinson, J.R., and Berlin J., “Train Safety System only Partially Installed on Chicago Area Railroads,” Chicago Tribune, 19 Dec. 2017.

Christiansen, D., “Caution: Self-Driving Cars,” IEEE-USA InSight, 12 Nov. 2015.

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also
Back to top button