What Driverless Cars Mean for the Role of AI in Urban Planning

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As artificial intelligence (AI) technology continues to make great strides, its impact can be felt across a wide variety of industries that reach well beyond the world of robotics, including the automotive industry. Driverless cars, once a figment of the science fiction imagination, have already been developed and are slowly being introduced in cities around the world. Although the technology behind driverless vehicles is relatively new, it’s being rapidly improved, which means driverless cars will become increasingly common in the near future.

Like the proliferation of personal motor vehicles in the first half of the twentieth century, driverless cars will fundamentally change the way we get around. As a result, issues must be addressed related to infrastructure and urban planning in order to ensure that driverless cars represent  progress rather than regression.

Infrastructure Planning

As more driverless vehicles make their way onto city streets, urban planners must consider the potential infrastructure changes that will need to be made, especially because most cities are currently designed around traditional modes of transit: subways, buses, and manually-driven vehicles, etc.

One of these considerations is parking. The U.S. currently has at least 100 million parking spaces, and many cities rely on parking fees to fund municipal projects and operations. As more vehicles become driverless, these spaces will either be rendered unnecessary or utilized in different ways. For example, driverless cars used in rideshare programs may not need to park immediately after dropping passengers off before proceeding to their next destination.

Of course, driverless vehicles won’t just affect other cars on the road—they will also impact other methods of shared transportation. Urban residents frequently take advantage of buses, subways, trains, and other methods of community transit, but as AI-operated vehicles become increasingly efficient, planners will need to reassess the timing and volume of shared transportation to determine where and how public funds are spent.

Housing and Urban Decentralization

People who live in cities often do so because of the relative proximity to their places of work, since many major employers are centrally located in urban areas. After all, nobody likes to commute, and, in cities, few residents want to navigate busy streets or worry about expensive parking. This could all change, however, with driverless vehicles. Because most of the stress of driving comes from having to pay close attention, AI-driven cars could allow passengers to “reclaim” their commute, using the time to work or relax.

It follows that if fewer residents mind commuting, many may move back into the suburbs (or at least further away from their places of work). Urban planners may have to consider the possibility that residents will find inner cities less desirable when the relative peace and privacy of the suburbs are made more accessible thanks to driverless vehicles.


Driverless vehicles won’t just affect urban residents, but also visitors to those same cities. For example, driverless cars may soon be used to provide tours of cities. AI could then be used to plan routes between must-see sites without negatively impacting area traffic. Tourism officials in urban destinations will need to consider how to formally and informally incorporate driverless vehicles into their plans—for example, how tour guides can be integrated into a fleet of driverless cars to give tours of urban centers or transport tourists to destinations off the beaten path. Driverless car manufacturers may also want to consider how driverless vehicles can serve tourists as well as commuters. For instance, larger windows would allow better viewing of sites as they pass by.

Looking Toward the Future

As AI-driven vehicles become increasingly common in cities around the world, urban planners will need to adopt strategies and adapt spaces to make it easier for residents to take advantage of this new technology. Of course, driverless vehicles won’t replace manually-driven vehicles (imagine having to use that phrase) or other modes of public transportation overnight, but urban planners and city officials should stay ahead of the curve by keeping AI in mind when designing and developing new neighborhoods and updating older ones.