Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

How Will Self- Driving Cars Change Cities?

Adel Sadek and Chunming Qiao.

Adel Sadek (left) and Chunming Qiao. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81


As driverless cars begin to appear on our roadways, experts have started to ponder how their eventual adoption on a large scale will impact cities. What are the implications for land use, highway systems and public transit? More generally, how will urban labor forces and economies be affected? We posed these questions to Adel Sadek, civil engineering professor and associate director of the Stephen Still Institute for Sustainable Transportation and Logistics, and Chunming Qiao, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

Adel Sadek: The answers depend on how we’re going to use autonomous vehicles. One model is that we use them the same way we use passenger cars, in which case the only big difference would be that we could use our commuting time in a more productive way. If we use them to complement public transportation, that could solve the “first and last mile” problem. Because public transportation follows a fixed route, people need another mode of transportation to get to and from the bus or metro stop; self-driving shuttles could be used to cover those first and last miles. A third model would make transportation a service, so that you wouldn’t need to own a car. Think Uber, but with self-driving vehicles.

Chunming Qiao: I don’t think we should use Uber as the point of comparison anymore. Waymo, which is owned by Google, is going to be the first company to have these autonomous taxis. In any case, all three models you describe are likely to co-exist. You will always have a need for public transit, while some people will always want to own a car. In terms of energy consumption and miles driven, I think autonomous vehicles will increase both. People will find it convenient and cheap, and so they’ll probably go out more. Another study I read said because of the convenience, people won’t mind living in the suburbs as much. That, of course, would increase the miles they have to travel.

AS: It would encourage people to live farther away from the urban core.

CQ: They will travel more often and travel farther.

AS: Exactly. You could be in your vehicle and logged onto your company network, working. You could have the car drive your kids to soccer practice. It could help with the mobility of the elderly and people who are visually impaired. If all this happens, you have more driving, more demand, more urban sprawl. Cities would get larger in some ways, though the density would be lower. If less space is taken by parking, you can replace that with more businesses. That would make cities more commercial at the core and more residential at the outskirts. None of this would be very sustainable from an environmental standpoint. But if people started adopting the idea of self-driving cars as a service, as shared mobility, or using them to complement an existing public transportation network, there would be a significant drop in the number of passenger cars on the road and that would be sustainable.

CQ: The public transit system could transform itself by embracing autonomous driving. On the other hand, people might say, “Forget about public transit. I’ll take the autonomous vehicle all the way.” Waymo could potentially wipe out public transit as we know it, and that could be a problem.

AS: You’re absolutely correct. A big argument for why you need a public transportation system for people and big vehicles for freight is the labor used to operate them. We use 18-wheelers instead of pickup trucks to move goods because labor is expensive. So once you replace that cost component, you might not need truck drivers, bus drivers or taxi drivers. That might not be a positive from a societal standpoint.

CQ: Automation will inevitably affect certain labor forces. I think the Industrial Revolution has shown that. Political scientists may have a better answer for how to cope with that.

AS: The hope is that there are going to be other industries that spin off of this that would absorb some of these workers, like what happened with the Industrial Revolution. That’s why institutions like UB have to rethink how we’re going to train the future workforce. But the idea behind automation is not that you’re trying to replace the human being; you’re trying to find ways to help humans use their time in a more productive way. And from a transportation engineering standpoint, we’re hoping automation helps us reduce accidents and fatalities, control traffic better and reduce energy consumption.

CQ: I definitely feel very passionate about the safety issue. They shouldn’t allow companies to do on-road testing without showing prior results from simulation or modeling to show that it’s safe enough. When human beings want to get a driver’s license, they need to pass a test. And right now there’s no test for autonomous vehicles. There’s no standard test by a third party. This is where we’re coming in. We’re developing a system that would allow us to test all different kinds of autonomous vehicles, subject them to a standard set of testing scenarios, score them and say if they are safe enough or not.

How do you take your coffee?

Adel Sadek and Chunming Qiao.

Adel: With milk and sugar.
Chunming: I drink tea.