How Self-Driving Cars Will Fundamentally Transform Architecture

The impact of self-driving cars is a rabbit hole that keeps getting deeper.

Almost all thinking on the subject has under-predicted the severity and breadth of what these robots will transform. If you give it sufficient thought, it’s clear that the secondary and tertiary effects touch on the unrelated and the absurd. While self-driving cars will directly put many drivers out of work, they will open up and enormous amount of construction work. This is because the replacement cycle for high-use vehicles is fast compared to construction. Almost immediately after they catch on, all the buildings where we live and work will be outdated.

Real estate markets will go topsy-turvy due to the changing realities of commuting, of course. This is a relatively direct effect, and it will impact what locations and desirable (high value) and what are less-so. But there’s a more nuanced effect where the function of our buildings will be very inefficient… compared to what’s possible. Eventually, what’s possible will become what’s demanded, and then what’s taken for granted.

Site Design

Somewhat obviously, parking decks and parking spaces will become obsolete with self-driving cars. Space to park has never been a problem. On-street parking would be sufficient if you were to include sufficiently sufficiently minor roads. The reason we have need for parking decks is because of the need to stop driving when close to the destination. Like taxis, this is not a problem for self-driving cars.

But what will replace our fields of concrete where we store our cars?

I always found old railway stations to be intriguing because they were, at a time, a diplomatic tool that established first-contact with almost all far-flung and well-to-do visitors.

Today, modern airports (for all the security unpleasantness) emulate this to a certain extent. In the future, campuses of various sorts, office parks, retail centers, and all the like will exhibit specific focus on the scenery that passengers see arriving and departing, as well as a particular attention to detail for the embark and disembark points. Since the cars are inherently coordinated, the landlords of properties will have significant control to dictate the behavior of the cars (when on premises) in ways that may result in more consumer purchases.

The fact that much space is opened up by the depreciation of parking lots and decks just lends them more capabilities to carry out landscape overhauls, and eventually this may be a strong differentiator in the 21st century economy.

Building Design

Door-to-door service may not be enough. Once self-driving cars become the norm, it will no longer be a differentiator. The most pressing factor might be figuring out how to handle increasing traffic due to increased urbanization and increased overall number of trips (due to the abundance that this technology offers). One component of this is figuring out exactly where cars pull up to destinations to drop people off.

The ideal case, it seems to be, is to eliminate context-shifts for things like use of elevators. Time is valuable, and time in the car can be spent at a computer doing work… or whatever. Optimizing this leads to a fairly obvious conclusion in my mind — which is to have the cars climb the multiple floors for the passengers. This allows and end-to-end trip that goes straight from one floor in building A to the needed floor in building B. It also helps with some throughput problems, because the area where stopping happens is a parallel process (a car stopping on one floor doesn’t need to block a car going to another floor). This is also very interesting when you consider that elevators can get quite blogged down in logistical factors themselves.

Here is a basic sketch of what I envision for such a building design.

The idea certainly isn’t rocket science, and many traffic flows already have this corkscrew design to some extent. Another illustration just so I’m clear:

The idea is that once self-driving cars become ubiquitous, it makes far more sense to integrate the transportation system in a new tightly-coupled manner that we are not familiar with.

Death of the Elevator

Just extrapolate, and it’s pretty clear that the above building design doesn’t need an elevator in the first place. This means that you might need some reserve cars in the system, and that some of these cars might spend time just going up a and down flights in the same building.

Nothing appears to block this possibility. For old buildings, it might not be a major cost-saver because they have already invested in the elevator, but for new buildings it could be a tremendous economic advantage. This system satisfies handicap access just fine — as self-driving cars themselves do. For a future developer, this system is much more attractive… and it’s also more modern and perhaps trendy in the eyes of people in a decade from now.

It is very nice to get rid of moving parts whenever possible, and the change I’m referencing here would do that for the part of the construction company, leveraging the moving parts that are already in-place in the self-driving car transportation system. Dumb ramps are going to be much cheaper than what we have now.

There’s more to the story than just this. Huge changes are coming, but I don’t know what they are, and neither does anyone else.

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