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The Future is Now: Driverless Cars Will Change How We Build

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Please step into the Curbed Atlanta Time Machine. We're going to go all sci-fi and jump 15 years into the future to try to imagine how changes in America's car culture might impact future real estate development. This futuristic journey is prompted by a Wired article last month on autonomous (read driverless) cars. Many assume that the next big thing in urban development is the growth of public transit systems like high-speed rail and light rail connections. But what if the next major development in transportation is a fleet of driverless cars instead?

Maybe you have already heard of Google's driverless cars that have already logged over 200,000 miles in live traffic all over California. If not, Google it and be prepared for a "the future is now" type moment (kind of like when I started telling my cell-phone to wake me up in the morning, and asking it to remind me to wear a suit, and oh yeah text Mom "Yes, Dad is crazy. No, it isn't you.").

As the Wired article points out, the technology is here already though it needs refining. The major impediment to a driverless car market is us, i.e. how long it takes "drivers" to accept such a drastic change and our governments (and insurance agencies) to enact laws and policies in response. The potential impact of driverless cars on our culture is fascinating, but what does it mean for real estate development? Many real estate plays are long-term holds, so thinking long-term (not Atlanta's strong point) can lead to better investments now. And 10-15-20 years off isn't really that far away is it? A short 15 years ago or so Curbed Atlanta was hustling to get a learner's permit.

Let's get to it. Imagine the typical day in the American family. A mom logs-in a route to the car using Google maps and the car's GPS system. Mom, Dad, kid jump in the car. Car drops off daughter at school, drops off Dad at work, drops off Mom at work, drives to dry-cleaners were dry-cleaner removes dirty clothes from trunk and sends car on its merry way where it returns home to wait for the afternoon pick-up route. Or maybe it returns to a regional parking lot or garage where it waits in a holding pen for a text from Mom's cell-phone summoning it. Sounds ridiculously Jetsonian, but the technology is already here. And to really blow your mind, what if the idea of personal car ownership is gone and this is all done with a fleet of public or semi-private cars like Zipcars? Mind-blown? Ok this is getting too trippy - back to the real estate.

Maybe a 'driverless car effect' wouldn't have implications on where we locate development (or maybe it would), but it surely would have a major impact on how we utilize land when we develop it. Parking is always a critical element of any sort of typical commercial or residential development. The assumption now is that cars come with the people and must be accounted for in a development's intended use. So we get office buildings with massive garages and big-box power centers with acres of surface parking.

Using land for parking spaces or garages is costly and inefficient. It's a necessary evil of the underlying land usage. The un-tethering of cars from people will have far-reaching societal implications but in real estate development it could mean the end, or at least a drastic reduction, in the allotment of land for parking. Less parking means less land is required for the same uses. Land costs go down for developers or alternatively land be used more productively to cover land costs Greater density would be achievable or green space could be an alternative to acres of asphalt. Architecture and site design and layouts would enjoy greater flexibility and freedom without the parking restraints.

Crazy stuff, we know. We're just excited about the prospect of spending a few hours at Taco Mac's Brewniversity and then being able to summon our Honda Accord to take us home, Knight Rider style.

How do you think driverless cars will change the way we use land? Will cities develop differently?