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CityLab
Transportation

The Self-Driving Dilemma

Autonomous vehicles could spark a cleaner, cheaper urban mobility revolution—or they could make it tougher to combat sprawl, congestion, and climate change.
Hell is other people's driverless cars.
Hell is other people's driverless cars.Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

The promise of autonomous cars has struck an especially jubilant chord with a chorus of futurist urban thinkers. The big transformative hope: We can break the death grip of car-centric urban design and planning, which has been something of a disaster for most American cities in the 20th century. In the near future, self-driving cars will simply circulate through cities, freeing road space and liberating millions of acres of parking lots for more useful purposes. Combine that with the ongoing electrification of the vehicle fleet, and it might look as if we are nearing an urban transportation utopia.

But the dream of cheap, clean mobility in cities might run up against some harsh realities—soaring energy consumption, supercharged sprawl, and intensified traffic congestion—if AVs are simply deployed to encourage more driving.