Driverless cars are coming to Atlanta. Are we ready?

Improving public transit, removing parking garages, narrowing streets—Atlanta could look a lot different if this technology takes off
Driverless Cars

Illustration by The Red Dress

On September 14, like any other day, a car will leave the Georgia Tech campus, turn onto North Avenue, and travel a mile and a half due east through Midtown and the Old Fourth Ward to reach Ponce City Market.

What’s different: This car—part of a joint pilot project by Tech and City Hall among others—will be guided on its voyage by a network of sensors, transmitters, Wi-Fi hotspots, GPS receivers, and other gizmos installed along the route and embedded in the vehicle that provide the real-time information needed to avoid obstacles and follow traffic rules. A person will be behind the wheel in case technology fails, but a computer will be in charge.

If all goes well and the car successfully reaches its destination, the event will be Atlanta’s first glimpse at a new form of transportation that could permanently change the urban landscape. The civic transformation ushered in by driverless cars, “autonomous vehicles” or “AVs” in the parlance of Silicon Valley and Detroit, could revolutionize the way Atlanta’s buildings and roads are designed, as well as upend how people move around a car-centric metro region. Eventually it might even do away with car ownership altogether.

Emphasis on the word “might.” There are obstacles to self-driving cars taking over the roads, including questions over legal liability in crashes; the potential hacking of guidance systems; and lobbying by insurance companies, labor unions, and other industries that stand to lose out. Then there’s the prospect of a very messy—and potentially long—transition period in which human drivers and empty cars share the streets.

And while no one is placing bets on when that paradigm shift will occur, local experts and government officials say it’s happening sooner than we might imagine. “Transportation technology, which has developed rapidly, will transform the Atlanta region not just in terms of planning but of policy,” says John Orr, manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s transportation access group. “It’s of critical importance that Atlanta gets out in front of this situation and not get left behind.”

The $3 million Smart Corridor project on North Avenue is one of several local initiatives aiming to figure out how autonomous vehicles and wired streets are likely to change the way we live. Shortly after the vehicle’s maiden voyage, transportation experts will tutor local elected leaders on the anticipated impact of self-driving cars at a day-long seminar hosted by the ARC. In May Governor Nathan Deal approved a law allowing self-driving cars on public streets. And last August graduate students in urban design at Georgia Tech imagined a city of the future in which fleets of small driverless buses would reduce wait times for transit users and where robotaxis would significantly reduce the need for parking decks at new developments.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at Tech’s School of Architecture who oversaw the student study titled “Downtown Atlanta 2041,” says this future is almost upon us. Anyone who has used Tesla’s ever-expanding Autopilot feature has already experienced some driverless car technology. “There’s a ton of hype right now about AVs and a lot of thinking and planning being expended into this by automakers and technology firms,” she says.

Google’s self-driving car project began in 2009 and was spun off last December. But it’s only one of many companies currently on the road. Phoenix-based Local Motors spent 2016 testing its pod-like autonomous bus, Olli, on city streets in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. Uber began offering driverless rides in Pittsburgh last year and Lyft has partnered with GM to develop robotaxis.

The future will be driverless
Silicon Valley and Detroit are betting on autonomous vehicles. Here are a few examples:

Google Waymo

Photograph courtesy of Waymo

Launched in 2009, Google’s self-driving car project began tests in April.


Photograph courtesy of Uber Advanced Technologies Group

The Silicon Valley heavyweight owns a self-driving trucking company and tested AVs in Pittsburgh.

IBM's Olli

Photograph courtesy of Olli by Local Motors

Local Motors
Olli, the company’s driverless shuttles, uses IBM’s Watson technology to analyze data.

GM and Lyft

Photograph by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Uber’s biggest competitor has teamed up with GM to develop robotaxis.

According to Faye DiMassimo, the City Hall official who’s overseeing the initiative, “There’s no doubt that AV fleets and rideshare services will be part of our future, so we want to get systems into place so that Atlanta is not only ready but a leader.”

The implication of all these advances in technology could be immense for public transit, says Dunham-Jones. If bus drivers’ salaries—the largest overhead cost—are taken out of the equation, smaller buses that come more frequently can replace large buses that come once every 30 minutes. Or passengers could even summon transit on demand.

If driverless shuttles do become the norm for commuters, there would be less reason for every Atlantan to own a car and therefore little demand for the parking lots that claim a sizable chunk of the real estate in dense areas like Buckhead, Midtown, and downtown—and maybe even Atlanta’s airport. (DiMassimo says local governments could even charge a curb fee based on where people get out of the vehicles to replace the millions in parking revenue it could lose in a lot-less world.) Architect Eric Kronberg, a new urbanism adherent, says the advent of autonomous vehicles should spur the city to do away with rules that require parking for most new development—at a cost of more than $16,000 a deck space.

Because autonomous vehicles could park themselves after dropping off their passengers, the few parking decks that remained could have narrower spaces since car doors would never open. Road lanes could shrink because AVs would communicate their locations to each other, and human error is eliminated. Dunham-Jones says Georgia should take this into account now and quit spending millions on road-widening projects.

Driverless cars by the numbers

Google introduces self-driving car project
$3 million
Cost of the Smart Corridor project on North Avenue
Miles the driverless car will travel on september 14
Number of parking spaces in downtown

“Instead of being dominated by traffic noise and congestion, Atlanta’s streets could be more pleasant, with more room for bikes and wider sidewalks,” she says. Thousands of acres of surface parking could be redeveloped into denser neighborhoods, helping to lower housing costs and create the walkable environment that many people crave.

This future depends on generations of Americans sharing the ride and shedding the notion that their car is part of their identity. And if Atlantans reject roboshuttles in favor of commuting alone, each in their own self-driving car? “That’s what I call the ‘hell scenario,’” Dunham-Jones says. “If everyone simply uses an AV to get to work, then sends it back home during the day so they don’t have to pay for parking, that would result in more trips and more congestion.” The costs and impacts of sprawl could continue to mount if a stress-free commute was made easier.

Orr says the ARC’s research suggests that most people are open to the prospect of an AV-driven future that places an emphasis on ridesharing. It’s well documented that millennials are less devoted to car ownership than their elders. But Orr concedes that human behavior and consumer preferences are wild cards. Dunham-Jones says government officials need to approach the dawn of self-driving cars with one goal in mind: How do we create a more livable city? “Love them or loathe them, AVs are coming, and we need to plan for them,” she says. “We get the future we deserve.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2017 issue.