Autonomous Vehicles in a Resilient Future

Date: 10/5/2018

Author: Cassie Oswood, Public Relations

Dr. Wei Li, an associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning here at Texas A&M, presented his research on autonomous vehicles to the Institute for Sustainable Communities. Dr. Li discussed the social evolution of autonomous vehicles and the implications for urban planning, development, and community resilience. The idea of autonomous vehicles has commonly been seen as an accessory to the vision of a high tech future with luxurious cars driving themselves while happy passengers have the freedom to enjoy meals, naps, or family time. Dr. Li’s research concepts go much deeper to explore a world soon to come where autonomous vehicles act as public transit and reduce parking lot spaces in cities to create availability for green space. His research begs the question, are autonomous vehicles a key part of a more sustainable and resilient future?

Safety is the priority before integrating automated cars into the market. The technology for autonomous vehicles has to be precise and thoroughly tested. As Dr. Li says, “Programming a car to drive in 99% of situations is not enough; 99.9% is not enough. We have to have 100% because that 0.01% is where disasters happen and people can die, which is not allowed.”

It was projected that in 20 years autonomous vehicles will make up 10-20% of the market share, and in 40-60% by 2050. However, once these vehicles enter the market what will the driving environment look like? According to Dr. Li, there are three operational models of autonomous vehicles in the future: private, shared, and transit autonomous vehicles. Though private vehicles would be the most comfortable and luxurious option, individual cars are projected to contribute to traffic congestion. Meanwhile, the shared and transit vehicle options would be less luxurious and more utilitarian. However, these public options would be lower in cost and would reduce congestion.

Zooming out the scope from individual passengers and vehicles to the community structure and economies, autonomous vehicles show much more potential than just proving means of transport. Dr. Li explains that “autonomous vehicles would contribute to community resilience. When autonomous vehicles reach a considerable market share, targeted parking spaces may be converted into parks which provide ecological services and thus reduce physical vulnerabilities. They can also be converted into housing and other amenities and reduce social vulnerabilities.” In major cities, such as Houston, almost a third of the land is used as parking. The large slabs of impermeable concrete replace the option of ecological sponges or permeable surfaces that can reduce flooding. By converting these parking lots into housing or parks, communities can increase their resilience to flooding.

Autonomous vehicles can also increase equity in low-income and mobility-challenged neighborhoods. These neighborhoods could potentially enjoy subsidized autonomous vehicle services and provide better access to public transportation by solving the “first-mile” and “last-mile” problems.

Dr. Li’s research shows that autonomous vehicles are not just an idea of luxury in the future, but rather an attainable means of resilience and transportation in the years to come.