Self-driving cars are on their way. The trailblazers (Tesla, Google, Uber) are conducting increasingly sophisticated tests in real-world conditions. The traditional car makers (General Motors, BMW) are acquiring start-ups or partnering with established tech companies to boost their capabilities. Ford recently promoted the head of its smart mobility unit to chief executive and aims to have a mass market fully autonomous car by 2021.

The changes the autonomous future will bring are likely to be profound. What might the effects be on the built environment? Here are a few possibilities.

Denser developments

The typical individually owned car is parked 95% of its lifetime. The typical AV is predicted to be a centrally owned hire vehicle, almost constantly on the move from job to job. Individual ownership could plummet, and demand for parking space would go with it. That would mean very little space would be needed for parking in new developments, allowing higher density of other uses – perhaps partly alleviating the housing crisis? Some new space would be needed though for loading and unloading to accommodate the way people would access buildings by AV.

A rush of retrofits

Many existing buildings with in-built parking space might not need it anymore, so there could be a lot of work to be done converting it into further accommodation, loading areas, storage space or other building amenities.

If AVs enable a largescale shift from shop visits to deliveries, perhaps supermarkets and other retailers will convert from customer shops to logistical centres.

New City Centre development sites

Watch out for the opportunities as landowners from local authorities to supermarkets sell off their car parks for development. Urban in-fill sites more than easy walking distance from public transport could also become more valuable sites as the availability of AVs make them more attractive residential locations.

Improved urban environments

If AVs use existing roads more efficiently, less space would be needed for vehicles. This could lead to a range of changes to make streets safer and more pleasant including wider pavements, seating areas and more trees. More of the street area could be permeable sustainable drainage systems, which could help reduce the urban heat island effect.

Roadside infrastructure

Strictly speaking, a fully autonomous vehicle does not need roadside infrastructure – it can drive itself without any external assistance. In reality, even fully autonomous vehicles will probably make use of roadside infrastructure to improve functionality, and it will be crucial in the beginning as less than fully autonomous vehicles are first introduced to the roads.

What sort of things are we talking about? Some things that are already there such as signs and road markings, but adapted to make it easier for AVs to recognise and make use of them. And some all-new things such as signalling equipment that will provide AVs with real time information about, for example, traffic conditions. That might require bespoke new installations, or it might be possible to incorporate it into existing infrastructure such as traffic lights.

More tunnels?

In truth, this could go either way. If AVs improve efficiency so much that the existing conventional road network turns out to have plenty of capacity, tunnels would probably not be part of the AV revolution. But others have hypothesised that AVs could result in increased demand on the road network as AV travel outcompetes other transport options on the strength of its comfort and door-to-door flexibility, in which case road upgrades become a pressing issue. Step forward Elon Musk, the driving force behind AV leading-light Tesla. He plans to revolutionise tunnelling, making it far quicker and cheaper and therefore a more viable option for expanding urban road networks. But these would be unlike tunnels seen before, with lifts taking cars (AV or otherwise) underground to be propelled at high speed through the tunnel on electric skates. We’re not making this up.

So – what now?

So what should real estate professionals be doing about this? AVs aren’t here yet, but they’re coming soon and it could pay to be ready to respond early to the inevitable challenges and opportunities.

While there’s uncertainty about when these changes will be felt, many are predicting they could be as little as 5 to 10 years away, so planners and scheme designers should already be giving this serious thought.

For example, do you really want to design that much parking space into your scheme that won’t be completed for a few years yet? Perhaps you have to, given current planning policies and market demand, but it might be wise to design it in a way that it could easily be converted to further residential or retail use. When seeking planning permission you could perhaps explore options with the planning authority to make the consenting process for such anticipated changes as frictionless as possible.

The challenges and opportunities may be uncertain at the moment but they are becoming clearer day by day – watch this space.