Smart homes are one thing, but we want to put them into smart communities and smart cities. Most urbanists these days think the suburbs are pretty useless, because the very young and the very old can’t get around without someone driving them; more land is devoted to moving and parking cars than to the people who live there; everybody is burning gas and sitting in congestion trying to get from Point A to Point B. But the smart city is another thing altogether. Right now, the thinking is that cities should be dense, walkable and cyclable, keeping us healthier by keeping us out of our cars. As author Taras Grescoe summarizes in a tweet, "The real future of the city is 21st century communications (smartphone apps, twitter, texts) and 19th century transport (subway, trams, bikes, walking)."

Or is it? Google just announced that its cute little self-driving car is ready to hit California roads. Here's recent post to the group's Google+ Page:

We’re going to be spending the holidays zipping around our test track, and we hope to see you on the streets of Northern California in the new year. Our safety drivers will continue to oversee the vehicle for a while longer, using temporary manual controls as needed while we continue to test and learn. 
sketch of self-driving car

This is what the future of the autonomous car could look like. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

So what happens when the roads are full of Google cars? How will it change things? Four years ago I was advisor to a workshop that studied the future of the autonomous car at the Institute Without Boundaries in Toronto. The group, made up of some of the smartest people in the business and some very smart students (and me) came up with some interesting conclusions:

  • Imagine a city without parked cars or garages. Since the car doesn't need a driver, it can go and move somebody or someone else. That's why they will mostly be shared.
  • Imagine a city with perhaps 90 percent fewer cars; that's the percentage of time most of us park our cars, but the autonomous ones are always on the move, so we don't need as many.
  • Imagine a city without traffic lights or stop signs. They are not needed anymore since cars just flow through each other's streams of traffic at intersections.
  • Imagine a re-greened city with boulevards and trees where there used to be multilane roads, parks where there used to be parking lots.
The city becomes a whole lot nicer without cars. But what gets a whole lot better are the suburbs — they actually begin to work.

Imagine life with the cute little Google car. You wouldn’t care about a long commute home because you could do everything in the car that you could do in your big comfy chair at home: watch TV, have a martini, take a nap. You wouldn’t worry about parking because the car would go off and do deliveries for Amazon or pick up your kids at school or get groceries for grandma when you were not in it. Pollution or peak oil wouldn't be a problem because the car is electric. The roads wouldn’t be crowded because there would be no parked cars; those cars are off doing something or working for UBER, because even if you own your car, it pays you to share it.

Author and urbanist Alison Arieff concurs, noting in The New York Times: 

"If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time, something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive."
In The New Yorker, Google’s Sergei Brin describes the kinds of changes the self-driving car might make in our communities:
Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland. “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model,” Brin said. “We are just on such a different planet.”
broadacre city/ Frank Lloyd Wright Public Domain

Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright/Public Domain

In fact, we have seen that planet before, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of Broadacre City. According to Matt Novak, Wright described three of America’s greatest strengths that would make it all possible, in a 1935 article in Architectural Record:

  • The motor car: general mobilization of the human being.
  • Radio, telephone and telegraph: electrical inter-communication becoming complete.
  • Standardized machine-shop production: machine invention plus scientific discovery.
And indeed, that is the scenario we appear to be on the cusp of realizing: The Google car to get us around, the Internet of Things to connect us to everything, and digital fabrication to make what we need close to home or even at home on our 3-D printers. The fact is, all of the conditions Wright envisioned are coming into being.

In fact, most of those things that we urbanists hate about the suburbs go away in this modern Broadacre City. Kids and seniors aren’t trapped, time isn’t wasted commuting, cars are efficient and non-polluting and the roads are safer for everyone. My urbanist friends are appalled; Kaid Benfield wrote at the NRDC switchboard:

Just because it’s high tech doesn’t make it better. Indeed, there are lots of “old fashioned” things we need to get right about our cities, urban regions, and transportation systems before we play with expensive new technology that still doesn’t solve those basic problems: we would place a higher priority on ensuring that cities are safe, hospitable to all, walkable, a pleasure to be in, and green.
Perhaps. But as The Economist noted recently, all over the world people are going suburban. What was the American dream is now everyone’s. They note that half of America lives in the suburbs, and those areas are still growing.
Those who argue that suburbia is dying are wrong on the facts; those who say it is doomed by the superiority of higher-density life make a far from convincing case. Cities that have sought to stop the sprawl — London is the most striking example — have achieved dubious benefits at great cost.
I continue to believe that we should be building dense, walkable and bikeable cities with nice streetcars where I can sit and look at my iPhone. I worry that the return of suburbia may once again leave the poor and the racial minorities behind and increase economic inequality.

However I can see the attraction of a modern Broadacre City full of Google's self-driving cars. We should keep an open mind and accentuate the positive, because this is coming down the road straight at us.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Why the Google car could change everything
The self-driving car won't just change the way we get around; it could also change the way we live and design our cities.