How will autonomous vehicles affect our towns and cities?

It’s happening. Autonomous vehicles, or cars that operate without a driver, are already being tested by companies like Waymo in Arizona.

Just like a human, these cars can see what’s around them and make decisions on their own.

The company’s CEO, John Krafcik, said, “We all share excitement at the potential for self-driving cars to one day open doors to safer and easier transportation for millions of people. When 94 percent of road crashes today involve human error, self-driving cars promise a future where anyone can ride with a driver that never gets drunk, tired or distracted.”

So, when will the big shift happen to all self-driving cars on the road? It’s closer than you may think.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced General Motors and Cruise Automation have put in an application to become the first in New York state to begin testing in early 2018. And, a new Regional Plan Association report estimates by 2045, 70 to 90 percent of vehicles could be autonomous. That’s only 28 years from now.

“Because they will be able to communicate with each other, it’s possible that they could be great for solving traffic issues because they can be routed for the most efficient route. They can also travel more closely together,” said RPA research analyst Allison Henry.

Henry highlighted the report which says cities need to start thinking about what autonomous cars mean for our public transit system and the way streets are designed.

“A lot of the street space right now goes to parking, and these vehicles won’t have to park anymore. So this means that cities really have a chance to think about the best use of that space, prioritizing it for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. They’re going to have to think about the way curb space is used and the way people get into these vehicles and get dropped off,” she said.

Think Uber or Lyft. Those apps, Henry says, are foreshadowing what autonomous vehicles will look like on the streets. But cheaper, she says, because there won’t be the cost of a driver.

“This technology represents a great opportunity for low-cost, on demand service for low-income people who don’t have access to a car now. It also is a great solution for disabled, elderly and young people who don’t have a license,” said Henry.

In the suburbs, Henry says there’s also a lot of potential with this technology.

“The average person who works in the city might drive their vehicle to a train station, a commuter rail station, and then park it and it stays there for 10 hours and it just sits idle. Whereas, with autonomous vehicles , you would be able to be picked up in a car. All the parking lots around train stations could then become developable land. We’ve calculated that that could be about 7,000 acres in the RPA regions, so that translates to about half of the area of Manhattan,” continued Henry.

Rutgers Researcher Jon Carnegie says what he would add to the conversation is the possibility of using the technology in public transit.

“There is some interesting innovation going on in places around the country, including Jacksonville, Florida and the Tampa area where they’ll be rolling out autonomous minibuses, basically pods that carry up to 12 people,” said Carnegie.

Still, what does this mean for current transportation, ride sharing or taxi drivers or jobs in parking lots? What does this mean for the auto industry?

“The future of autonomous vehicles in New Jersey has the potential to be very positive, but it could be a very big challenge to get there,” said Carnegie.