SXSW: How will self-driving cars impact future of transit? 


Like many American cities, the conversation about the future of travel in Oklahoma City is dominated by a push for more public transportation. The city has invested in a coming streetcar system, expanded bus service and has a goal of transforming the downtown Santa Fe station into an intermodal transit hub for a advanced public transit system.

However, how could self-driving cars impact this effort and could it do harm the anti-sprawl efforts to expand urban transit?

“It’s a complete game changer ... society will change,” said Andre Weimerskirch, a research scientist at the University Of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Weimerskirch was one of four panelists at a Saturday SXSW forum on advanced mobility. Advancements in self-driving cars, which Weimerskirch said he believed would be a major part of the auto landscape in several years, could not only increase safety, the panelists said, but also make longer commutes more acceptable.

“If you are in an automated car you can commute 90 minutes one way because you can work in the car or sleep,” Weimerskirch said.

click to enlarge Jay Ellis is a Program Dir of M-TRAC Transportation at the University of Michigan and was a panelist during a forum on self-driving cars at SXSW. - BEN FELDER
  • Ben Felder
  • Jay Ellis is a Program Dir of M-TRAC Transportation at the University of Michigan and was a panelist during a forum on self-driving cars at SXSW.

For those who value urban living and short commutes - whether they are driving or not - self-driving cars may not be a reason to live further from the city’s core. But Oklahoma City has already experienced steady sprawl over the past few decades and panelists said this technology won’t necessarily reverse that.

“Self driving cars are not going to be the only answer for mobility,” said Alisyn Malek, an investment manager with GM Ventures, who believes there will still be a need for urban-based modes of transportation, like public transit. But, “As an auto maker we want to sell cars.”

New models of cars can already be found with data sharing and self-driving features, such as a car that parks itself. But researchers at the Mobility Transformation Center and M City facility at the University of Michigan are hopeful that a fully self-driving car will hit showrooms to the mass public sometime over the next decade.

That is assuming researchers continue to solve the problems that currently exist, including weather.

‘It’s really a blessing and curse that we live in Michigan that we are going to have to tackle these problems [of weather],” said Ryan Eustice a professor at the University of Michigan. “If you are driving in snow should you be driving in your lane, or the tire tracks of the guy in front of you? The self-driving car has to figure that out.”

Ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft have already begun to impact urban mobility and scientists believe the self-driving car will have an even greater impact in the not-so-distant future.

“We are already moving towards permanently connected vehicles,” Weimerskirch said. “We will eventually have automated cars. It’s coming.”

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