Autonomous car technology is progressing at a rapid clip. Google spinoff Waymo’s fleet has racked up more than 8 million real-world miles, and Cruise, the driverless car division of General Motors, managed in one year to reduce its cars’ disengagements from once every 35 miles to once every 1,250.
But when self-driving vehicles hit the road en masse, what socioeconomic changes might they bring? That’s the question the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation aims to answer with a $5.25 million program — the largest yet under its Smart Cities umbrella — that’ll foster community-driven roadmaps in five U.S. cities: Detroit, Long Beach, Miami, San Jose, and Pittsburgh.
The Knight Foundation will recruit local residents for regular meetings to discuss how self-driving technology might address their needs. If all goes well, these groups will serve as a breeding ground for policy ideas and future legislation.
Each group’s objectives will be uniquely tailored to their respective city:
- Detroit will address challenges getting to and from bus stops that connect residents to places of work.
- Long Beach will develop short-distance travel solutions by integrating electric and human-powered transit, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality, and creating a “safer, healthier, and more sustainable” city.
- Miami will aim to make driverless shuttles a viable alternative to buses.
- Pittsburgh will support neighborhoods by slowing the growth of single-occupant vehicle trips.
- San Jose will seek to integrate self-driving vehicles with other forms of transit and to connect residents to jobs and entertainment destinations in the city center.
“Knight believes that a true Smart City puts people first,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. “Self-driving cars have the potential to remake the face of cities. We want to work with city leaders to ensure those changes respond to residents — instead of putting residents at the whims of technology.”
Those leaders need all the help they can get. In a study of 68 large U.S. cities’ transportation plans, a dismal 6 percent considered how driverless cars would affect urban mobility.
That said, some manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to address “last mile” gaps in neighborhoods and suburbs. In July, Waymo announced a partnership with Valley Metro, the Phoenix area’s regional public transit authority, to develop mobility solutions for seniors and people with disabilities. And last week, autonomous vehicle startup Udelv began delivering groceries from supermarkets in Oklahoma City to customers in “underserved” markets.
The Knight Foundation program formalizes those efforts and importantly — said Lilian Coral, Knight Foundation director for national strategy and technology innovation — gives riders a voice they currently lack.
“Autonomous vehicles are one of the most disruptive technologies of our time, holding significant implications for the way we move, work, and interact within communities. Important conversations are happening among government and industry on what these changes mean for the future, but residents have largely been left from the table,” Coral said. “Without their input, we risk designing cities for new kinds of cars, rather than for people.”