Ready to Give up the Driver’s Seat?

Autonomous cars may well upend how you work—and where your customers want to live.
driverless car illustration

© Kristen Solecki

The sight of a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan cruising down the street isn’t likely to turn heads—except if you happen to be in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, Ariz. Some of the retrofitted models on the road in this southwestern town have a large, clunky dome sitting atop the roof, housing an array of sensors, including those for cameras, radar, and 3D laser technology. Pull up alongside the vehicle and you’ll find an even bigger surprise. While there may be passengers stretched out in the minivan’s two rows of back seats, there’s no one behind the wheel.

This scenario is becoming more common as driverless technology developer Waymo and other companies, such as Uber, test and refine ride-sharing programs using both autonomous vehicles—which require some degree of human response—and fully self-driving vehicles in select cities around the country. It’s the beginning of a movement toward taking humans out of the driver’s seat. What does that mean for you and your business? Once the novelty—and any nervousness—wears off, it could improve your ability to focus on clients while going out on showings together. But it’s not just your time in the car that stands to be affected. As driverless vehicles become mainstream in the next decade, they will likely enable easier, less stressful commutes for those who rely on autos to get to work, and that could influence consumer patterns—especially where people choose to live.

Steve Murray, founder and president of Denver-based real estate information company REAL Trends, muses about how his own life may shift. Without having to focus on the road during the congested, hour-long commute to work from his home in the Denver suburbs, Murray says, he’d be likely to live full-time at his getaway ranch an additional 40 miles from his city office. There’s broad consensus among transportation officials that, by connecting driverless vehicles to one another and to a broader highway communications network, existing roads will be much better able to handle traffic. Commute times likely will decrease. Fully self-driving vehicles “will blow up the anchor we have that requires us to deal with commuting time and distance,” Murray says.

Real estate analysts predict that these cars could boost the appeal of inner cities as well as outlying exurbs. Reducing the hassles associated with traditional mass transit and eliminating the need to find and pay for parking, driverless ride-share programs—the model most automakers are eyeing—could draw more people to the urban core. For developers, urban land dedicated to surface lots and parking structures could be repurposed for more productive applications, such as parks, theaters, shops, or apartment buildings.

Fast and Furious Change

The first stages of change are underway. By the end of this year, Waymo plans to launch the world’s first commercial ride-sharing service in the Phoenix metro area using entirely driverless vehicles. “We’ve moved from research and development to operations and deployment,” CEO John Krafcik said during the New York Auto Show in April. Within a few years, Waymo hopes to have as many as 62,000 fully self-driving vehicles operating on roads across the U.S.

Already, a growing number of vehicles are rolling into dealer showrooms, offering semi-autonomous technology. Nissan’s ProPilot Assist system helps a vehicle hold its place in its lane with only marginal input from the driver. Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot can operate virtually hands-free at low speeds, while Cadillac’s Super Cruise—a next-generation cruise control that senses traffic patterns and can apply the brake if a driver fails to do so—can do the same thing at highway speeds for hours at a time. And Tesla, which was among the first to offer this kind of capability, expects to launch a fully hands-free version of its Autopilot system by mid-2019, according to CEO Elon Musk.

In the lingo of automotive engineers, vehicle technology is reaching “Level 3” autonomy. But the real breakthroughs appear to be coming much faster than most observers expected:

Level 4 autonomy—which Waymo is readying—not only lets a vehicle operate hands-free but doesn’t require anyone riding shotgun who can take over in an emergency. Such vehicles will be “geofenced,” limited to operating in certain areas and, likely, only in good weather conditions.

Level 5 takes things to the max, allowing a vehicle—whether a car, SUV, or even a semitruck—to go anywhere, anytime, without limits or a backup operator.

Interrupting Normal Patterns

The specter of a society filled with driverless cars raises questions that have yet to be fully explored. Consider the fact that when you’re behind the wheel, you don’t always travel straight from point A to point B. There may be the stop at the coffee shop, the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and an impulse stop at a store with a special sale. But if you’re riding in a driverless vehicle that you ordered up by smartphone, Murray wonders, will you be as likely—or able—to interrupt your journey?

Robert Campbell, a sales associate at Max Broock, REALTORS®, in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich., says any barriers to programming a more natural route may frustrate both you and your clients if your intention is to explore multiple neighborhood amenities. When he’s taking a client to look at a home, Campbell points out, “I usually try to take them by the nice places in town—even if it’s not the direct route. I might drive them by a church, the nearest school, or some nice shops. A driverless vehicle is likely to take them on the most direct route. But what if that takes them by the depot [or other places] not as nice?”

Letting a ride-sharing service control the route also means that potential clients might miss some charming, off-the--beaten-path communities, Campbell adds. In his area, the tiny Motor City suburb of Pleasant Ridge is one such neighborhood he wouldn’t want his clients to pass up. “Driverless vehicles won’t have spontaneity,” he laments.

Issues Being Raised

Wait just a couple of years and you’ll likely be able to check off “autonomous” when you choose the options for your new car. You’ll still have to be ready to take control in an emergency, however. Because of the complexity and cost, Level 4 and Level 5 systems will largely be targeted to commercial car and truck fleets. Indeed, “ride-sharing services are the ones driving the development of driverless vehicles,” says Gill Pratt, the head of Toyota’s self-driving research program. Upcoming vehicle design also will appeal to real estate professionals and their clients. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Concept, for example, will offer seats that swivel, allowing all passengers to sit as if in a mobile living room—or office.

Safety is another central issue that makers of autonomous and driverless vehicles must address. A fatal crash in March involving a fully driverless SUV being tested by Uber near Phoenix has ratcheted up public anxiety about the reliability of such vehicles. The incident prompted Uber to temporarily suspend its driverless pilot program around the country. But proponents like Mark Rosekind, former director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the technology will be a safety game-changer. Last year, 40,000 people died on U.S. roads, according to NHTSA data. Rosekind predicts that hands-free and fully driverless technology will all but eliminate car crashes, injuries, and deaths. Still, the current testing phase on public roads has consumer advocates worried. John Simpson, director of California-based Consumer Watchdog, says the pilot programs turn passengers and other drivers into “guinea pigs.”

Nevertheless, few automakers expect to see further speedbumps slowing the pace of development. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives last year passed the SELF DRIVE Act to make testing easier on public roads. Like it or not, this mobility revolution is here to stay, and will likely transform how you and your clients live, work, and travel.