When and if autonomous cars arrive on the streets, they will affect not only traffic, but land use and real estate as well.
Today, places and most services have a fixed location. People drive to shops, restaurants, offices and hotels. With autonomous mobile platforms, some services could be unbundled from a rigid location. Suddenly, a multitude of scenarios arises:
- a person drives up to a fixed place to get service;
- a person stays put and requests a service-on-wheels to drive to them;
- both a person and a service are in motion and meet on the road
Could autonomous cars end up changing real estate business?
Food on Wheels
What if some basic food and retail services could become available directly on the road? A coffee shop could cruise on a highway and serve customers in autonomous cars without stopping.
Overall, this would require completely new autonomous car designs and support of a universal connector to make service on the road safe. A company called Next has proposed a modular pod design that would allow this use case. Surprisingly, most media coverage of the project focused predominantly on their passenger experience and missed the service-on-wheels potential.
During long distance trips, travelers stop at some intervals not only for food, but to use a bathroom. With modular pods, it’s possible to have on-demand toilets-on-wheels as well. Next anticipates this scenario too.
The impact of attachable cafes-on-wheels in traffic within an urban center is unclear. Should they become a nuisance, their use probably would be limited to certain hours of operation. In the center the demand side of the equation is also uncertain. Service pods might not be able to get through traffic to clients.
Attachable cafe-on-wheels and toilets-on-wheels make sense for long-distance commutes on highways and could reduce demand for existing rest stop infrastructure.
Work on Wheels
Autonomous cars could free those who used to manually drive to work to do something else. One obvious scenario is to use the additional time for work, study or simply recreation.
IDEO has designed a concept work-on-wheels pod to demonstrate how car shape could evolve without existing limitations.
IDEO also proposed a concept of inverse commuting to flexible work nexuses. That is when people drive up to an open space for a work day or a meeting or park in WOW pods.
Inverse commuting is a cool concept, but it could only work at scale in suburbia. We have skyscrapers for a reason; there is simply not enough floor area to satisfy demand for commercial space within a dense urban center. Thus, mobile pods could work in cities for meetings, but are not as substitute for offices.
This could be a great new platform for operators like Breather that lease meeting rooms on-demand for as little as half-an-hour. Another operator that would make perfect sense for work-on-wheels cars is Starbucks or its competitors. Using a minibus design, larger than the detachable Next pods, it could have a barista + workstations where people could have a snack, work or study during a commute. Coffee shop shuttles could adapt the route crowdsourcing model developed by startups like Chariot and Bridj.
Motels on Wheels
Travelers need a place to use a bathroom, take a shower and sleep. It’s possible to use a bathroom in rest areas and roadside cafes. It’s possible that seats in some autonomous cars could be designed for a comfortable nap. As for showers, one could drop into a gym in the morning. But overall, this doesn’t make for a comfortable travel experience; that’s why roadside motels exist.
Could a dedicated autonomous travel car design emerge? Imagine that instead of driving in one car, then sleeping in a motel room, one could request a Marriott or Super8 autonomous sleeping car. It should have a supply of shower water and a toilet. Instead of making a stop to sleep, passengers could keep driving all night while asleep. It’s questionable how comfortable such pods could be, however, and if they could reach a significant scale, but it’s still a concept worth considering. Autonomous travel cars require cleaning and maintenance in different cities, so they would likely be business-owned and operated. However, autonomous RVs might become a more viable personal investment if they could be leased out frequently via AirBnB.
Charger on Wheels
For autonomous sleeping rooms and commercial vehicles with long-distance shipments stopping at recharging stops, this is a waste of time. For this use case, charging stations on wheels could make non-stop transportation possible. This would further reduce demand for highway roadside infrastructure.
Impact on Land Use
In urban areas, autonomous cars could stimulate streetfront retail and reduce requirements for traditional parking. However, it’s difficult to imagine that autonomous cars could alter real estate design within a city center in a radical way.
Autonomous cars could stimulate a new wave of suburbanization and sprawl. As time would no longer be wasted commuting, ex-drivers could use them to work, and some people might choose to live farther away.
Autonomous cars could affect highway roadside infrastructure in two opposite ways:
- On the one hand, autonomous cafes, toilets, chargers, and hotels on wheels have potential to significantly reduce the demand for roadside infrastructure.
- On the other hand, where would operators store all those mobile pods with cafes, toilets, chargers, and hotel rooms? Operators would need cheap space to build hubs for their maintenance and resupply. There’s no need to have these hubs in expensive urban centers, so it would make sense to repurpose existing service areas along highways to house hubs for autonomous cars.
Autonomous cars are still something that we can only speculate about. Today, we typically think of companies like Google, Tesla, Uber, and Apple, who are racing towards getting the first autonomous cars on the market.
As use scenarios go beyond pure transit mobility and logistics, we may start thinking about autonomous cars as real estate. Tiny, mobile, yet still real estate. Within this framework, a completely different set of service operators may emerge from Starbucks and Breather, to Hilton, and AirBnB etc.