Dealers take note: Autonomous vehicles are coming for you

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Sidewalk Labs’ long-awaiting master plan for a proposed high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto included a notable admission from the company: Self-driving cars might make traffic congestion in cities a whole lot worse. 

And as we reported this week, the Google affiliate’s proposed solution could have a massive impact on the viability of dealerships in urban areas. 

It’s a risk many others have pointed out. But it’s notable coming from Sidewalk, which sees autonomous vehicles as crucial to its long-term goal of transforming urban design to be more sustainable and pedestrian-friendly. 

“If self-driving vehicles are individually owned and free to roam the streets without a driver, then car ownership — and congestion — might soar,” the Sidewalk plan reads. “But if self-driving vehicles are integrated into the urban environment and public transit network with thoughtful policies that encourage fleets of shared trips and people first street designs, they can become part of a next-generation mobility system.” 

In other words, cities of the future must discourage private ownership of autonomous vehicles, as well as non-autonomous vehicles, to solve the congestion plaguing major cities worldwide. 

That echoes concerns raised in a report this year by University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Adam Millard Ball. The study, released in the journal Transport Policy, found that autonomous vehicles, when not in use by a rider, would in many cases choose to slowly cruise around streets to “kill time.” Driving, in many cases, would be a more economically viable option than parking, given high parking prices in urban centres. 

How bad could things get? Using a traffic-simulation model, Millard-Ball found that traffic in downtown San Francisco could crawl to as low as two mph (3.2 km/h) with the addition of just 2,000 or so self-driving vehicles

Millard-Ball suggests cities enact congestion pricing — essentially, a fee for vehicles to enter a city’s centre — as a potential solution, one already applied in some cities. London, for instance, has a fee of £11.50 (Cdn $19.27) for vehicles to enter the core of the city during peak hours on weekdays. 

Sidewalk, meanwhile, suggests cities, including Toronto invest heavily in their transit systems to discourage the use of private vehicles and make it easier for residents to use ride-hailing services, electric scooters, bikes and other forms of transportation. 

The end goal, then, is to reduce vehicle ownership rates in cities. From an urban development perspective as well as an environmental one, that makes sense. Reducing congestion would make cities more livable and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. 

But for dealers who rely on new-vehicle sales in urban areas, that could spell trouble. Fewer people owning vehicles means fewer customers. While, as Sidewalk noted, personal car ownership will never disappear, a shrinking market could spell doom for some dealers. 

We don’t profess to have the long-term answer for dealers, but we do know it’s important for them to stay aware of the debates that cities such as Toronto will have over the future of urban development. Even if Sidewalk’s plans fail to get approved, conversations about how to reduce traffic congestion will continue, and they will likely always return to putting fewer vehicles the roads.

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