In absence of proactive local regulations, self-driving cars will exploit city streets for commercial use. These vehicles will offer dining, retail, entertainment, and other services to passengers without paying commercial rent. They will redefine city life, disrupt real estate industry and reduce investments in public infrastructure.
Self-driving cars are here to stay. Technology enthusiasts and investors are cheering the arrival of self-driving cars with anticipation and hope. Technology industry and investors have a lot to gain from self-driving cars and rapid advancements in underlying technologies such as artificial intelligence and connectivity. However, these technologies will create unimaginable disruptions to the real estate industry and city life.
Commercial spaces on wheels
Self-driving cars will turn every driver into a passenger. As a passenger, the driver will be free to engage in other activities such as dining, retail, and entertainment. The fleet companies will be tempted to redesign their vehicles to meet demands for services and to monetize the time spent by passengers in their vehicles. In other words, these cars will become commercial spaces on wheels.
Although not on city roads, the Staten Island ferry is a great example of how one can exploit the use of public spaces (waterways) for commercial gain. The 30-minute ferry ride is full of opportunities for shopping, dining, and ad-hoc entertainment. There are plenty of spaces for advertising as well. The ferry service is able to monetize time spent by passengers on the ferry for commercial gain.
Self-driving cars and commercial use of public streets
Once self-driving cars begin to exploit public roadways for commercial gain, there will be reduced demand for retail, dining, and commercial spaces. The commute will become pleasurable, and people may begin to work on the road further reducing the need for office space. On long trips, they may even use such cars as hotel rooms on wheels. Reduced demand for commercial space and potential loss of tax revenue will result in massive disruptions to city life. Such disruptions will reduce investments in city services and public infrastructure.
Local governments and regulatory agencies will need to be pro-active to enact regulations for commercial use of public roadways. They will need to retrieve a portion of revenues generated by such uses through taxes. Legislative action will be required to assure that public is not adversely affected by self-driving cars and commercial use of public streets. The experience from technologies such as online shopping and internet commerce have demonstrated that the regulatory apparatus is typically caught unprepared to deal with disruptions caused by emerging technologies. Perhaps it will be different this time.
Title image: Retail on wheels. PantheraLeo1359531, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons