Driverless cars could become a regular feature of the roads as early as April – at least in California, which has decided to allow fully autonomous vehicles to be tested on the roads (none of those pesky humans who have been present in test drives so far). Arizona has already become a fair-weather center for testing driverless vehicles, thanks in large part to the governor’s support, and Uber announced last week that it has finished testing its self-driving trucks in Arizona and is now beginning to use them to move goods across the state.
It’s not just the U.S., either. The British government launched a review last week of laws governing self-driving vehicles, with the aim of getting autonomous cars on the road by 2021, and other countries around the world are also experimenting with autonomous vehicles.
Clearly a big step for the technology and automotive industries – no surprise that companies working on driverless vehicles include Google and Uber, as well as traditional automakers like Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, Volkswagen and Volvo – the advent of human-less driving could also redirect the traffic of our days, how we live our lives and get around. Perhaps somewhat less obviously, a future filled with autonomous vehicles could also spur some big changes in where we live and work, thus affecting the real estate market in addition to the transportation and tech industries.
Of course, we realize that for all the buzz, driverless cars could turn out to change the world no more than Google Glass or to transform transportation no more than the much-hyped Segway. While the success rate of driverless cars may not be as predictable as some may like to believe, it can still be instructive to peer through the windshield of a driverless future and see what twists and turns might lie on the road ahead.
The value of transit hubs
One question worth considering is what the proliferation of autonomous cars could mean for public transportation and the value of the real estate that has been built around transit hubs.
The proximity of office and residential buildings to public transit hubs has traditionally been seen as adding value to the property by making commuting easy, a phenomenon that would seem to be bolstered by the low car-ownership rates of millennials.
“Clearly, any sort of big transit infrastructure program can act as a huge stimulus for the development of surrounding real estate,” said Scott Homa, a director of United States office research for real estate firm JLL. “It’s starting to emerge as a universal theme across the U.S.”
Sections of the U.S. that have seen real estate development near new rail systems or train stations include the Somerville suburb of Boston; Chicago’s Fulton Market; downtown Kansas City, Missouri; and Austin, Texas, the New York Times reported last spring.
It’s possible that the availability of driverless vehicles could, like the increasing prevalence of ride-sharing, simply become one more reason for urbanites to avoid buying a car – thus making proximity to public transit at least as valuable as before.
But there’s another possibility, too: The introduction of a driverless vehicle option could make access to public transit less important to commuters. And that could have a major impact on the needs and demands of the buyers, tenants and renters of office and residential properties (whether single-family or multifamily).
“AVs [autonomous vehicles] are expected to significantly reduce travel cost, time and congestion, while increasing safety,” accounting firm KPMG said in a 2017 report on the impact of autonomous vehicles on the public transport sector. “Cost-efficient self-driving cars could change commuter preferences away from conventional public transport.”
It’s important to remember that it’s not just privately owned four-door sedans that could be roaming the roads without any humans behind the wheel. The Netherlands, China and Switzerland have been testing self-driving public transportation options such as electric driverless shuttles with capacities of up to nine people, as well as full-sized driverless buses.
With driverless cars, shuttles and buses thrown into the mix, offices and residential buildings that might previously have been seen as less attractive for commuters because of their distance from transit hubs could become more appealing than before. Seen through a real estate lens, that greater appeal could translate into increasing demand and rising property values.
The flip side is that properties that commanded high value due to their proximity to transit hubs could suddenly find themselves losing their edge.
Even in neighborhoods already served by public transit, autonomous vehicles could potentially become a threat to existing transportation systems. By supplementing public transit – or in some cases, even replacing it – autonomous cars could potentially render the existing public transportation system less important, ultimately voiding the assumption that proximity to transit hubs boosts property values.
The need for parking
Many of us drive to work in the morning and park near the office, where our cars sit unused until we’re ready to head home at the end of the day. The average privately owned car in the U.S. is in use just 5% of the time and spends the rest of the time parked, according to architecture, planning and consulting firm Gensler.
“America’s parking footprint, estimated at 500 million parking spaces, consumes more land than Delaware and Rhode Island combined,” Gensler said in a report on driverless cars. In New York City alone, parking covers the equivalent of two Central Parks.
But that picture could change to the extent that autonomous vehicles roll into action.
If driverless cars really do put the pedal to the metal, one ramification of having a car zoom away as soon as you get to your destination could be a reduced need for parking lots – which are, of course, a form of commercial real estate, even if they typically don’t involve buildings.
“AVs remove commuters' demands for street and lot parking,” KPMG said in its autonomous vehicles report. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that autonomous vehicles could reduce the need for parking space in the U.S. by more than 61 billion square feet.
That’s because driverless cars could potentially pick people up from their homes, drop them off at the office or the mall and then leave to park in a less prime area – or, like taxis, won’t even need to park, but will just move on to the next customer and the next trip.
Uber, already a popular alternative both to cars and to public transit, in November agreed to buy 24,000 SUVs from Volvo to form a fleet of driverless vehicles. Uber has said its driverless cars could hit the roads as early as next year.
A reduced need for parking could have a mixed effect on commercial real estate.
It could reduce the real estate costs for owners who currently assume they need to be able to provide parking, and it could spark construction and development on the site of existing parking lots and garages, such as 143 W. 40th Street and 14 S. William Street. Both Manhattan sites are among the 300 locations run by Icon Parking, New York City’s largest parking lot operator, which would presumably need to decide how it wants to change lanes should driverless vehicles lower demand for parking.
On a larger scale, in densely packed cities like New York, where land is at a premium, a diminished need for parking lots and garages could have a dramatic effect on the supply and demand equation. If there were to be a sudden influx of land available for redevelopment (and yes, that’s a big if), that could go a long way to creating a buyer’s market.
And once we’ve got driverless cars pulling up in the pretty near future and reducing the utility of parking lots, the next question is: What’s going to happen to those parking lots?
The answer: We don’t know what exactly they’ll become, but it’s safe to say that if all the ifs and whens come to pass, those suddenly superfluous parking lots and garages will be turned into something, meaning increased construction and development.
Driverless cars are increasingly getting the green light. Whether they’ll become merely one more transportation option or fundamentally alter the way we go is still unclear – but if it’s the latter, transportation is not the only industry that will be disrupted. The prospective ubiquity of autonomous vehicles might ultimately turn out well for commercial real estate as a whole, but we would be wise to expect some potholes along the way.