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Photo via Medium/Google Self-driving car project.
Photo via Medium/Google Self-driving car project.

Self-driving cars are headed our way and, while experts debate exactly how fast they’re going, one thing is certain: They will dramatically change transportation and urban life.

Glenn Kelman
Glenn Kelman on stage at the GeekWire Summit.

Glenn Kelman, CEO of Seattle-based real estate site Redfin, recently explored how self-driving cars will impact home buying in an essay titled “American Cities Were Built for Cars. What Will Happen When They All Leave?

Owning a car, Kelman says, “has been the pet that Americans insist on accommodating, in numbers ten times higher than modern parts of Asia like Hong Kong.”

He claims that homes cost an extra $50,000 per parking space, a spec that’s likely to change with the advent of self-driving cars. Because it’s unclear when autonomous vehicles will be the norm, home buyers shouldn’t put too much stake in the new technology. Still, Kelman says they should avoid paying a premium for a garage.

Here’s more from Kelman: 

Already Lyft and Uber have shifted millennials’ home-buying preferences: who needs a garage, or for that matter a kitchen or a living room, when transportation, food and even a social life are all available online and on-demand? This is why, even as urban home prices boom, we see couples with one car or no cars preferring smaller homes with fewer amenities but a high Walk Score and nearby transit.

In our lifetimes, and the lifetimes of our mortgages, the self-driving car could change the shape of the American city even more profoundly. Unlike the cars of today, which are parked 96% of the time, self-driving cars will be in semi-continuous service except in the wee hours; we’ll need far fewer cars overall, and those that remain will leave town at night.

A third of urban real estate is devoted to parking garages that could become parks; there are eight U.S. parking spaces for every car in operation, for as many as two billion U.S. spaces overall. Thirteen percent of every lot for a typical single-family home is now dedicated to a garage; this could be converted into an office or a mother-in-law apartment; with the liquidity provided by AirBnB and other property-rental sites, single-family homes could thus become 13% more affordable. Perhaps a decade from now, architects and contractors may offer fixed-fee garage-conversion services, in much the same way that old houses were once converted en masse to use modern furnaces and plumbing.

Housing isn’t the only market likely to be disrupted by the advent of autonomous vehicles. Freight delivery, transportation networks, and public policy all face major changes as the technology is implemented. It’s unclear whether driverless cars will have a positive or negative impact on the environment but most agree they will greatly improve safety on the roads.

Their potential to reduce auto deaths was the driving factor behind President Obama’s $4 billion investment in the technology. The money will be used to bring self-driving cars to American roads over the next 10 years. It’s likely, by many experts estimates, that the vehicles will become ubiquitous over that time.

“A hundred years ago, the car was the reason that cities became something entirely different than villages, with sprawl, painful commutes and gated communities,” says Kelman. “Now the self-driving car may bring the old idea of a village back to the future.”

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