With the promise of dramatic changes to our urban landscape, people around the world are anticipating how automated vehicles will affect their cities and their daily lives. Many of us have heard compelling cases for how automated vehicles could benefit us, from reduced accidents to the ability to make transportation more efficient and seamless, but what do city leaders need to do now to be ready for an automated future?

It’s not just about the vehicles

While the vehicles are where the development and excitement are in the public eye, they’re only one part of the automated future. Before any car is automated, it will need to be connected — to other vehicles nearby, to the infrastructure around it and to the people traveling in the public right of way. Future automated vehicles will leverage image sensors, radar sensors and LiDAR sensors to recognize and react to anything within 300 yards of the vehicle, and they’ll also need to know if there’s an obstruction 1 mile down the road or congestion 20 miles away. While some of that information will come from the vehicles, much of it will come from the infrastructure that supports them.

Infrastructure will need to change to support automated vehicles, whether through improvements such as vehicle-to-infrastructure technology that can communicate signal timing, or traffic management centers that will oversee the hundreds or thousands of vehicles traveling the roadway network. While the first automated vehicle may not be on the market for a few years, these technology improvements are available today. Cities should take the time now to rethink how their existing, planned and future infrastructure will need to be connected to automated vehicles to optimize their true capabilities.

Data is the passenger

For decades, cities have planned transportation goals around moving people, but with automated vehicles, the new passenger will be data. Vehicles will create massive amounts of information about passenger movements, the transportation system and driving conditions. How this data moves will become the new infrastructure cities will need to develop. Fiber optic networks and 5G small cells that create a low latency, reliable “data freeway” will be a must-have for cities looking to embrace automated technology. With this infrastructure evolution, cities will need to recognize that updating data communication tools and intelligent transportation system architecture will be just as important as repairing bridges and building roads.

Benefits beyond transportation

When you ask people about their biggest concern for a city, you’ll usually get answers like homelessness, cost of living and jobs. It’s interesting to think about how automated vehicles could play a part in addressing those concerns.

In the mindset of many, automated vehicles may simply be a method of transportation, but the technology can actually unlock much of the urban land we have in our cities. Interestingly enough, in many major metropolitan areas, more than 1/3 of the land is used for parking — valuable space that could be used for affordable housing, commercial space or retail stores.

Recent studies by the University of Toronto estimate that parking lots for automated vehicles could hold as much as 87 percent more cars than traditional parking lots, greatly reducing the overall square footage needed for parking, thus freeing up land for more important uses that improve quality of life. While not all of that land can be made available, the right automated vehicle regulations and infrastructure can make a significant impact.

Get ready now

These are just a few of the things to know about a future with automated vehicles; there are many more considerations about how these emerging technologies will change our cities. This technology will impact the way we design our infrastructure, plan our days and live our lives. It’s important now, prior to when these vehicles put rubber to the road, for city leaders and planners to strategize how they can optimize adoption and receive every benefit out of the eventual automated future.

Originally published 07.23.2018