Visualization of self-driving carpool fleet by fullness of car, Lisbon, Portugal

Simulation of self-driving carpool fleet by fullness of car, Lisbon, Portugal

A fascinating new simulation finds that self-driving cars will re-form cities: 90% of cars will be eliminated, acres of land will open up, and commute times will drop 10%. A team of transportation scientists at the Organization for Cooperation and Development took data on actual trips in Lisbon, Portugal and looked at how a fleet of self-driving, shared “taxibots” would change city landscape [PDF].

These “taxibots”, the researchers imagine, are a marriage of mass carpooling and UPS delivery intelligence: they constantly roam throughout cities and match carpool routes with mathematical elegance. Ultimately, they estimate, 9 out of 10 cars would be completely unnecessary — as would public transit.

“Nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 10% of the cars TaxiBots combined with high-capacity public transport could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city,” the paper concludes.  

“For small and medium-sized cities, it is conceivable that a shared fleet of self-driving vehicles could completely obviate the need for traditional public transport.”

Without the need for individual ownership of cars, the authors find that Lisbon alone would have 210 football fields of extra space (or 20% of “kerb-to-kerb” space).

It’s also worth noting that there would be significant savings (not mentioned in the report). Because parking spaces increase the cost of construction, expensive development gets passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices on retail goods and rent. One study found that parking spaces bump the price retail goods 1% and the environmental research group, the Sightline Institute, estimated that free parking in Seattle spikes rental costs about $246/month per person.

Uber is funneling it’s sizable coffers toward turning this self-driving fantasy city into a reality. The company recently invested in a new facility to accelerate technology that could completely automate their entire fleet.

It’s hard to say when a city like San Francisco or Manhattan could fully embrace self-driving cars, but it’s definitely on the horizon.