Car Design, Street Design: A Chicken and Egg Scenario?

With all the discussion of how autonomous vehicles will function, there hasn’t been as much buzz about what they will actually look like. A recent article on The Ringer explored the way automakers are beginning to unleash their imaginations. The first design opportunity comes from the removal of side mirrors, allowing for sleeker, more aerodynamic and fuel efficient vehicles. Google briefly experimented with a more ambitious redesign in the form of their pod-like Firefly cars, but concerns over its ability to perform in a variety of environments, especially high speed freeways, caused the company to shift towards automating a standard minivan. It’s argued that since consumer identity is still tied so strongly to the style of car they own, drastic changes to vehicle design isn’t likely to happen any time in the near future.

Some companies are still thinking outside the box, with thoughts about different door designs, or reshaping the car’s interior seating. Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet are both considering new opportunities within the framework of a more traditional exterior design. However, current cars are designed around tight safety standards, so completely breaking established rules won’t be possible until AVs make up a significant, if not complete, portion of cars on the road.

Why should planners care about car design? The size and shape of AVs will determine the amount of space they need, which will impact how much space planners can reallocate for other road uses. If car designers maintain current dimensions, or worse, make cars larger to become moving offices, it limits the types of street designs that can be used in the future.

The article suggests that different car styles will become popular for different uses. If policy is successful in shifting behavior towards shared vehicles, will that make cars larger or smaller? Will they hold one person or multiple? Will passengers sit side by side or behind each other in a line? Should planners design the roads to fit the car or should automakers design their cars to fit the road? Perhaps there will be multiple shifts in car form and function, along with multiple shifts in street design over time, as planners slowly try to claw back space from machines in order to give it to people.

Steph Nappa is a Master’s Candidate in Community and Regional Planning and an Urbanism Next Fellow at the University of Oregon.  She is examining how to re-design city streets to prioritize bicycles, pedestrians and transit in an era of autonomous vehicles.

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  1. Gary Collins

    Why do we assume autonomous vehicles are inevitable, or even a good idea? The private vehicle, whatever its drive or operational system, however safe and clean, is an evil in terms of urban character. It will still dominate and determine the essential character of the street system and hence the most fundamental determinant of urban layout and pedestrian experience. It will also nullify one of the most important exercises of individual responsibility in our culture without any commensurate return on urban infrastructure compared to mass transit. Sure, door to door convenience, maybe, but still destructive of the quality of urban life available sans the automobile (still an appropriate term).

    • snappa

      You are correct that automobile use has had negative impacts on our urban landscape. However, unless there is legislation to outlaw them, we have to assume that cars will continue to exist on our roads. It is true that we don’t know if autonomous vehicles will be successful in the market, but if they are, they provide opportunities for cities to make changes to the transportation system that could reverse some of the negative trends of the past century. This is what my research is focused on, so I hope you’ll stay tuned!

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