What with self-driving cars in the city?

Something I read in my newspaper last week about self-driving cars and cities. An opinion of Peter Vanham, Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum in New York. It’s in Dutch and behind a pay-wall so let me summarize.

He points out the city Liège in Belgium. A city with two faces: a renewed city-center but also old steel factories at the edge of the city. But most important he drew the attention to the lack of vision for the future of the city and its mobility.

In short: Peter claims that self-driving cars can serve as an USP towards tech companies.

And he gives an example: Pittsburgh in the United States. Similar to Liège (a history of steel and recent renovations) but with one difference. They do have a future-proof mobility plan.

Next year Pittsburgh will become one the first cities in the world where on large scale self-driving cars will drive. Uber and Volvo will test hundreds of them in Pittsburgh.

Curious about the Pittsburgh case I started to read about it:

Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved.


Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.

And this is the proof:

The more you read about it, the more interesting it becomes:

First, the car will be a Volvo XC90—a luxury SUV a good deal fancier than the seemingly standard-issue Prius. Second, the ride will be free. And third, it’ll be driven by a robot.


Yes, Uber is launching a pilot fleet of autonomous Volvos in Steel City. The $300 million project, funded by the two companies, is the most aggressive implementation of autonomous driving ever (even when you take into account the fact that a person will still be sitting in the driver’s seat, ready to take over if the computer fails).


Which is great. But it’s not even the most important part. This deployment shows just how radically autonomous vehicles are going to re-shape the world—starting with cities. Specifically starting with Pittsburgh, home to robotics powerhouse Carnegie Mellon University and (not coincidentally) Uber’s engineering team.

When you talk about innovation you have to mention Google, or Alphabet as we should say. Off course,they also have been busy with self-driving cars:

More about the project of Google you can read here. Not so long ago Google and Uber where good friends but when Google started to work on their self-driving car they became a sort of competitors. Google started a carpool service in San Francisco (using the app Waze) and that made Uber a bit nervous.

You have to know, Uber doesn’t like competition. One of their competitors Lyft was taken down by Uber using fake people who ordered a lift via Lyft. In that way the drivers of Lyft became frustrated because they were fooled and didn’t earn money…

But back to the article I started with.

Peter says that it’s time we should think about the future of our cities and the role of transportation. In Belgium we always have been pioneers in transportation: seafaring, railways and highways. Nowadays we are no longer up-to-date but at that time we were way ahead…

Self-driving cars are coming, it’s just a matter of a couple of years. So why don’t we start to think about adjusting our cities to them?

Peter says:

A mobility plan with self-driving cars, electric and ‘classic’ bikes and public transportation in a central role. It could be a main keystone for economic growth and innovation in a region and improve the life quality of the citizins

He claims we would have safer and faster transportation, needed less parking spaces, create healthier cities and have more social contact.

Safer and faster transportation, that is for sure:

I found this article on Vox that sums up some other advantages of self-driving cars:

More broadly, most of the problems facing autonomous vehicles, and the vast number of accidents they’re involved in, trace back to the continuing role played by unpredictable humans, either behind the wheel or piloting other vehicles. So NACTO wants humans taken out of the picture; it supports full automation, as soon as possible.


More than that, it wants those self-driving vehicles to be communally owned, part of shared fleets that offer mobility as a service to cities. It says that product designers, automakers, regulators, and city planners should “incentivize shared, automated, electric vehicles” (SAEVs).

When you create an environment that enables tech companies to go wild, they will.

A city who would invest in a mobility plan for self-driving cars would be more attractive for innovative companies. I already wrote a blogpost about creative cities and how this serves a city as an attraction towards people and companies, this could be a part of it.

However, maybe just one thing. I already wrote that cars should never get a central role in the city. So I interfer with my own opinion when I say that self-driving cars are the way to go.

This is an article I read in The Guardian:

OK, by driverless cars I mean vehicles that get me there while I am not driving them, brilliantly efficient vehicles that get by with maybe one human driver per 50 or 500 people. You own them too. We call them buses, streetcars, trains, ferries. I own a car, I take taxis, but I make extensive use of my feet, my bike, and public transit, and the mix works very nicely for this city dweller.


The Tesla cars are the best of big tech’s vision of the future; it is now possible to put solar panels on your roof and run your electric car for free in a nearly carbon-neutral way (once the panels and cars are built). Which is literally cool.


Apple, Tesla, Uber, Google and various auto manufacturers’ pursuit of driverless cars is an attempt to preserve and maybe extend private automobile usage. The rise of new ways of hailing taxis and the problematic companies Lyft and Uber has given a younger generation more ways to stay in private one-party-per-vehicle transit and added fleets of new vehicles to already congested cities.

One thing is for sure… You will hear a lot about self-driving cars in the future.


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