Missoula turns thoughts to self-driving cars, future of transportation

Uber last week ordered 24,000 autonomous vehicles from Volvo as it gears up to place driverless taxis on American roads. (Reuters)

As Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s new self-driving electric semi last week in a Los Angeles warehouse, Jessica Morriss was sequestered in a basement office at Missoula City Hall.

As the city’s transportation planner, she has worked to reduce traffic congestion by diversifying travel options. It’s been a challenging task in a growing city with limited means.

But Morriss and other transportation planners will get a boost from technology in the coming years as on-demand, autonomous vehicles replace privately owned cars. When they arrive – and they will – they will change the transportation landscape in Missoula and cities across the country.

“We think about it constantly and there are some small steps that are being taken now to try to prepare the best we can, at least knowing what we know right now,” said Morriss. “There are so many unknowns. The changes in technology are happening rapidly.”

RethinkX, an independent think tank that studies the speed and scale of technology, believes the transportation revolution has already begun. As it unfolds, cities will face the “most consequential disruption of transportation in history.”

A report by industry experts places the turning point at 2021, though it could happen as soon as 2019 in some areas. Visionaries believe the shift will begin in large cities with high population densities before migrating to smaller cities and suburbs.

The question isn’t whether the era of autonomous transportation will arrive, but rather what cities like Missoula are doing to prepare for the shift.

“Maybe Montana will be a little less quick on the uptake, but at the rate Missoula is growing and becoming a tech hub, and with a lot of younger people here, we’re going to start seeing that technology pretty quickly,” Morriss said. “Portland and San Francisco are writing their own policies about this right now.”

The automobile has dominated city streets for a century, holding great sway in how cities are planned and built. Parking lots cover large tracts of land and billions of dollars are spent on infrastructure that requires costly upkeep.

But in coming years, all that could change. Some cities will likely move to ban the combustion engine, sending oil and dirty emissions along with it. The number of passenger vehicles will drop by 80 percent, opening up vast acreages for more productive uses.

How quickly the technology arrives may be impossible to pinpoint, though experts suggest that by 2030, on-demand autonomous cars powered by electric motors will account for 95 percent of all passenger miles.

“Other communities that are doing testing with autonomous cars are starting to come up with things they can do now in anticipation of the future,” said Russ Fletcher, a tech-watcher in Missoula. “We need to become aware of what other cities are doing and look at how we can better design and prepare our built environment.”

Google tests its self-driving cars. (Google)

Fletcher, who founded the Montana Associated Technology Roundtables, maintains ties to the Silicon Valley and has a son who works for Google, which has developed its own autonomous car. Uber last week ordered 24,000 autonomous vehicles from Volvo as it gears up to place driverless taxis on American roads.

In the coming years, Fletcher believes, the “transport-as-a-service” industry will arrive with its electric, self-driving cars, and Missoula should plan now as it tackles its future transportation needs.

“I think it’ll have as much impact as when we first got computers, and those communities that can plan for it and get ahead of it will benefit from it the most,” Fletcher said. “We won’t build our lives around the car. People will subscribe to a car service and not own cars for transportation.”

Morriss offered the same vision, though she believes cities like Missoula will need to find ways to incentivize car sharing. Predictions suggest that most buyers will avoid taking on new car payments when other transportation options are available.

“Some cities are looking to develop policies now that will encourage individuals not to go out and buy their own autonomous car,” said Morriss. “They’re working to develop this shared model that would keep the number of trips down.”

The National League of Cities and Towns has already encouraged cities to speed up their efforts to prepare for autonomous vehicles, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has released its first Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.

Among the national recommendations, local leaders are advised to invest in integrated autonomous vehicle technology. That includes efforts to grow data storage and processing capacity, as well as sensor networks and broadband.

It also urges cities to ensure that streetscapes and roadway designs accommodate autonomous vehicles. Morriss believes some of those steps have already begun in Missoula, though others believe they should go farther and faster.

“The Montana Department of Transportation is planning for intersection signal upgrades that will make the current function of the traffic signals better,” Morriss said. “It’ll make sure the technology they invest in now will accommodate technology 10 years from now, so those autonomous vehicles can communicate with those traffic systems.”

Like many city planners looking to the future, Morriss is opposed to investing millions of dollars of taxpayer money into wider streets with more lanes. Such improvements, she says, fill up with more cars once completed, doing little to ease congestion.

Rather, planning for the future through smart growth and inward development will help position Missoula for the coming changes in technology and transportation.

“As a professional, I have little interest in investing huge amounts of taxpayer dollars that will have little if any impact on congestion,” Morriss said. “What I’m more interested in is trying to have growth policies that don’t make people reliant on their car. That goes for now and with autonomous cars.”

If predictions for the future hold true, Missoula could find itself awash in newly buildable land as the transportation grid shrinks. Gasoline stations will dry up, and four-lane corridors will grow obsolete.

Parking lots and parking garages would vanish from the urban landscape, giving way to new infill opportunities. Some jobs would die out and others would come online.

“I think no matter what transportation looks like, whether it’s autonomous vehicles, a fleet of Ubers driving us around, or autonomous transit and autonomous freight, we’re still going to be using the general grid system of roads,” said Morriss.

“We see the changes out there and these new things coming online and we monitor it and look at what other places are doing, like Portland and San Francisco. They’re trying to get out in front of it, and we want to to get out in front of it as well.”