In the foreground at right, Valerie Sathe Brugeman, a senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research, speaking at the ULI Spring Meeting.

Though driverless vehicles are expected to be commercially available in the next few years, the shift to their use is likely to occur gradually and in phases over several decades, panelists said at ULI’s Spring Meeting in Detroit.

That long process will allow vehicles to be tested and improved. It also will enable the development of urban infrastructure—such as smart roads and traffic management systems that communicate continuously with many vehicles at once—that would make them work better, panelists said. And just as important, gradual growth would enable wary members of the public to adjust to autonomous vehicles and accept their potential benefits.

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“First, there’s the technical challenge—the software, the integration, creating the autonomous vehicle that runs safely and reliably,” said Sherif Marakby, vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification at Ford Motor Co. The next phase will be figuring out how the vehicles will be used and how they will be integrated into the urban landscape, he said.

Ford has announced its intention to have a fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation by 2021. The vehicle, which will do away with conventional human controls such as a steering wheel and brake and gas pedals, will operate only within geo-fenced areas as part of a ride-sharing service, according to the company’s website.

In the early phase, autonomous vehicles will need a lot of onboard computer processing power, Marakby said. Eventually, however, vehicles will rely more on smart-city infrastructure, such as transponders that would communicate with the vehicles at intersections and perhaps eliminate the need for traffic signals.

“We start relying less on the vehicle and more on what’s going on around the vehicle,” he said.

Getting a buy-in from the public is crucial, said Alisyn Malek, chief operating officer for May Mobility, a self-driving shuttle startup.

“The future is autonomous, but we need to be bring everyone along on this ride,” she said.

Malek noted that during a recent demonstration of May Mobility’s driverless micro-transit shuttle service in Detroit, about 20 out of 220 people who tried the service had some apprehension beforehand about riding in a driverless vehicle. But by the time the vehicle got them to their destination, “they were all smiles,” she said.

“It’s important to get vehicles out there so people can feel and touch them,” said moderator Dan Corey, deputy practice leader for intelligent transportation systems for technology solutions firm AECOM.

Valerie Sathe Brugeman, a senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research, said it will be important for cities to adapt their zoning regulations to get the benefits of autonomous vehicles.

In this rendering, a solar farm next to a highway recharges vehicles as they pass by. (AECOM)

Switching from having minimum parking requirements for buildings to having a maximum allotment, for example, will free up space that otherwise would be occupied by parking garages and surface lots, which will not be needed as much once fleets of autonomous vehicles are roaming continuously to pick up and drop off passengers. At the same time, it will be important for regulators to find ways to discourage zero-occupancy vehicles from endlessly circling and contributing to traffic congestion.

The panelists noted that even in the most optimistic scenarios, human-driven vehicles still will account for most of the traffic for decades. “I think there always will be people who want to drive,” Corey said.

As a result, it may be necessary to gradually introduce autonomous vehicles, to give people time to adjust to their presence. One strategy may be to create dedicated lanes for such vehicles in order to limit having them mix with human-driven vehicles.

Continuously operating fleets of autonomous vehicles will rack up mileage more quickly than today’s cars, said Marakby. “We’re designing [autonomous vehicles] to have hundreds of thousands of miles of durability,” he said. “The auto industry hasn’t been doing that for most of its history.”

Corey expects to see growth in maintenance operations to maintain the vehicles, which may make up for carmakers selling fewer vehicles, he said.

Panelists also noted that because future autonomous vehicles will run on electricity rather than gasoline, cities and states may need to find alternatives to gasoline taxes for financing road construction and maintenance.

The recent autonomous-vehicle accident that killed a pedestrian in Arizona has pushed safety to the forefront of discussions about the technology, panelists said. But that tragedy has not changed experts’ belief that ultimately the vehicles will reduce traffic accidents and make roads safer.