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Bring ‘em on? Planning for the Robo-cars

Now is the time for planners to engage in the public debate on vehicle-automation – leaving it to the car-makers and search-engine providers (and their legions of techies) won’t deliver the livability outcomes planners aim to achieve.
Scott Le Vine | @scottericlevine | June 21, 2013, 4am PDT
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Planners have had a – shall we say – rocky relationship with the automobile.  The passionate love affair of the parkway-building heyday is a distant memory.  Interstate Highways are here to stay, for better or worse (perhaps with tinkering at the margins).  In the early 21st century we’ve settled into a loveless marriage: Planners recognize the car isn’t going away any time soon (a debatable proposition, in point of fact), but it is tolerated rather than embraced.  The prevailing view in the profession today is that driving is a necessary evil, to be minimized in favor of active travel and public transportation.

The ground is shifting beneath our feet, however.  Breakthroughs in sensing, processing and control technologies have brought vehicle-automation out of the realm of science fiction.  (True, the taco-copter still isn’t delivering just yet).  As many of you will know, state legislatures are beginning to regulate automated cars (the lobbyists are swarming), but the leading legal thinking is that if it ain’t explicitly prohibited – and in general it ain’t – then it’s (probably) a legal activity.

With the major technical barriers to automated-operation now addressed, the remaining challenges are still difficult, but more prosaic:

  • reliably delivering increasing levels of automation,
  • scaling-up from prototypes to the mass market,
  • identifying the appropriate role of the public and private sectors in the regulatory / legal / institutional /  insurance framework,
  • developing viable business cases (e.g. for alternative forms of vehicle-ownership),
  • managing deployment in mixed-traffic (and mixed-road-user) environments,
  • quantifying (and planning for) the implications on land use, energy consumption, and wider lifestyles,
  • and so forth.

The year’s ‘main event’ is the 2nd Annual Road Vehicle Automation Conference (, organized by the Transportation Research Board and taking place at Stanford University’s Law School from July 16th to 19th, 2013. 

Now is the time for planners to engage – leaving this to the car-makers and search-engine providers (and their legions of techies) won’t deliver the livability outcomes planners aim to achieve.  Events on-the-ground will pass us by if we ignore this trend, to the profession’s detriment. 

A sampling of impacts planners need to be thinking about: how does parking provision (and its enforcement by municipalities) change? What are the (likely countervailing) pressures for further sprawl versus more compact land use patterns? How could sleeker street design improve pedestrian connectivity? What are the realities of how people will make use of the new capabilities offered by automation – and the implications for the public realm?  And what does increasingly-intelligent and connected transportation mean for the quality-of-life of cognitively or physically disabled people?

I’m keenly looking forward to the conference’s agenda, which includes deep-dive workshops on – among a range of topics – Shared-Mobility and Transit, Energy and Environmental Impacts, and Cyber-security and System Resiliency (hacking?).  Beyond the scientific content will be the unique opportunity to demo an automated vehicle.

I hope you’re able to join us in Palo Alto, and if you will be attending please get in touch: slevine (at)

Scott Le Vine, AICP is a research associate in transport systems at Imperial College London.  He is currently preparing a Think Piece on Vehicle-Automation for the Independent Transport Commission.

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