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“Future-Proofing” Buildings to Account for Autonomous Vehicles

As self-driving vehicles become more ubiquitous, facility designers and owners will need to develop strategies that cover a wide range of possibilities.

2019 Auto/Aero Site Guide
Narrowing the ramps and designing them as spirals outside of the parking garage itself allows the potential to re-purpose the facility for other uses.
Narrowing the ramps and designing them as spirals outside of the parking garage itself allows the potential to re-purpose the facility for other uses.
“I fear I’ll be remembered as the last CEO in history to spend $25 million on a parking garage.” These were the wise words of a forward-looking leader with whom I recently met. While it was the first time that I’ve heard someone exhibiting that level of caution in their development plans, I’m sure it won’t be the last. So be careful, parking garage developers — if you build it, they might not come.

Why? We’ve all seen the videos of autonomous vehicle pilot programs, and many of us — including me — have seen the actual vehicles rolling through our neighborhoods and business parks. It’s still not entirely clear how such vehicles will be utilized or when they will become the norm, but we know it’s only a matter of time before self-driving cars and trucks freely roam our roads. Until then, the uncertainty surrounding autonomous vehicles should rouse caution from owners and developers as they design the next generation of structures — from office towers and distribution centers to hospitals and stadiums.

Because the situation is so fluid, the safest bet is to invest in convertible options — think low-cost, low-risk solutions — that allow for a number of eventualities. This way, the wise do not have to predict a single outcome; instead, they can buy themselves the flexibility needed to adapt to an unknowable end-state.

Here are some of the ways building owners can plan for this changing, indefinite future:

Re-Designing The Parking Garage
When it comes to planning for alternative transportation approaches, there are a few key design concepts forward-thinkers keep in mind. While some are very practical, others require additional thought. Here’s an easy one:

In most traditional parking garages, cars can park on both the level decks and the up and down ramps. That is, to make the best use of the garage space, architects keep the parking ramps as wide as the garages themselves, and roughly half the garage allows for cars to park on slopes up and slopes down.

Fast-forward, however, to a time when the need for parking garages is minimal. In the worst-case scenario, you could put up walls and locking doors where you once parked cars — suddenly, you have a six-story self-storage facility. But people can’t repurpose angled surfaces nearly as readily as flat surfaces. So today, many are narrowing the ramps and designing them as spirals outside of the garage itself. This way, in a six-story garage, all six stories have the potential to be re-purposed.

Accounting For Ride-Sharing
Another reality faced regularly deals with ride-sharing services and how best to accommodate them alongside traditional transit. Not long ago, if people needed a lift, it was spelled with an ‘i’ and it required calling for a ride. Or, in New York, people would frantically wave their arms to hail a cab. But today, Lyft — or Uber if you prefer — is just a few touches away on an iPhone or Android. These on-demand services are designed to make our lives easier, and they often do — that is, until 20,000 people leave a baseball game in San Francisco, and everyone calls for a Lyft or Uber within minutes of each other. Then, chaos erupts.

As architects and city planners look to accommodate this reality, many are segregating ride-share “pick up zones” from parking garages by creating multiple queue lanes to allow ride-share vehicles to line up like railcars in an intermodal yard. The recently opened Toyota Music Factory in Irving, Texas, is a perfect example. In this case, the dedicated ride-share drive is on the opposite side of the venue, so those vehicles do not compete for space with people looking to park. While not all businesses face this same sort of pressure, it is safe to say most will experience some degree of congestion during specific times of the day (i.e., when large numbers of people are trying to enter or exit at the same time). Whether via autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing, public transit, sky-taxis, or even Rent-A-Yak, we will constantly be searching for ways to combat the constraints caused when too many people show up at the same place at the same time.

Thanks to autonomous long-haul trucks, big changes are also coming to the industrial space. Cities Without Drivers
In another very forward-looking scenario, many city planners — including some in places like London and New York — are now talking about a time when it will be illegal for a driver to enter their cities in anything but autonomous vehicles. Picture massive parking structures at a city’s edge — maybe multistory, vertical garages where people will store their cars when working in the city, or some sort of vehicular vending machine for long-haul vehicles that will be shared or used only when needed.

In major cities, all vehicles will coordinate traffic and routes with one another. In fact, there may well no longer be a need for stop lights because traffic will sort itself out without them. There might be slowdowns, but the roadways will never grind to a halt because of accidents, because people run out of gas, or because a tire blows out. How is that possible? Because the cars of the future will be able to predict and detect such events. They will drive themselves to a “vehicular remediation zone” where they will tell a robotic technician what the problem is, and it will be quickly fixed before heading back out into service without causing any delays. Sound far-fetched? I used to think so, but not anymore.

For now, to future-proof our buildings, towns, and cities, master plan designers must develop strategies that cover a wide range of possibilities. First, they must consider what we know today and analyze the ways we access and exit distribution centers, factories, churches, schools, hospitals, stadiums, and other locations. Then, they must plan ways to adapt these same structures for next the generation of transportation modes. One way to start is by setting aside strategically placed zones that can be repurposed over multiple generations. So instead of building parking structures like the pyramids in Egypt, let’s build them like Legos: quick to set up, quick to take apart, and quick to adapt.

Automated Supply Chain
Thanks to autonomous long-haul trucks, big changes are also coming to the industrial space. While the logistics supply chain has become increasingly automated, trucks are still completely operated by people. However, several factors are motivating the trucking industry to look at autonomous technology. First, truck drivers increase the costs associated with the supply chain. Truck drivers are an aging population, and because more drivers are leaving the industry than joining it, it’s increasingly important that companies find a solution to these labor shortages. Furthermore, federal regulations mandate that a truck driver spend no more than 11 hours a day driving without taking an eight-hour break.

These challenges have led major truck manufacturers and technology companies to make significant investments in autonomous technology. In the U.S., 20 states have authorized the testing of driverless trucks in a “platoon” formation, which allows for a group of trucks to drive in a convoy. The lead truck is driven by a human operator, and the trucks in the convoy follow the instructions from that truck. Further, the U.S. Postal Service is testing autonomous semis to deliver mail across state lines, and we can expect that many of these trucks will be electric as well. As a result, we will see more EV charging stations at hubs and yards, in addition to queue systems similar to those at office buildings to allow for ride-sharing and fewer car park locations.

This new technology is sure to impact site selection. While fully autonomous vehicles are still decades away, we can expect lower transportation costs to make remote locations — such as secondary and tertiary markets where commercial real estate costs are typically lower — more attractive.

The Takeaway
I, for one, share the sentiment of my CEO friend mentioned at the beginning of this piece; it is certainly conceivable that kids born today may never need a driver’s license. They may grow up in a world where they can’t imagine spending an exorbitant amount of money for something they have to fill with gasoline or plug into a charging station. They’d also be saddled with something they need to get inspected annually, something that must be insured, something they need to wash, and something they need to repair, among other things. Instead, today’s youth might summon driverless vehicles from their phones, and our buildings, our towns, and our cities will look and function differently because of it.

Wise leaders and developers, take note: will you be the last to spend $25 million on a parking garage that may become obsolete?

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