As driverless cars become commonplace in the next five or 10 years, builders and developers will need to rethink how they plan their new communities, like Trumark's Fielding at Wallis Ranch in Dublin, Calif.
Christopher Mayer Photography As driverless cars become commonplace in the next five or 10 years, builders and developers will need to rethink how they plan their new communities, like Trumark's Fielding at Wallis Ranch in Dublin, Calif.

The era of driverless cars isn't far off. Automakers and tech companies are racing to make self-driving cars commercially available in cities across the country, according to this Business Insider article.

Ford, GM, Tesla, Lyft, Google, and more plan to have autonomous cars on the road within the next five years. In fact, Goldman Sachs estimates that by 2030, driverless cars could make up as much as 60% of U.S. auto sales.

Many of the country's home builders are already considering how driverless cars will impact future residential development. Executives at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Trumark Homes have been discussing it for more than a year, says co-founder Gregg Nelson. Here, BUILDER talks with Nelson about how self-driving vehicles will reshape communities in the near future.

With driverless cars quickly becoming a reality, how is the home building industry getting in front of this new phenomenon?
At this point, I think it is in the form of discussions rather than tangible changes. At Trumark, we have been talking about the possible implications in design of our homes and our communities. We have been working on design alternatives for future projects that consider the implications of this coming change.

Other builders are doing the same. For instance, KB Home, along with KTGY Architecture, unveiled its “KB Home ProjeKt” at this year's Greenbuild Conference, a home designed for the future with no garage.

What do you foresee as the biggest challenges when it comes to designing communities for driverless cars?
One of the biggest challenges will be to convince suburban municipalities that not all homes/home buyers will want or need a garage, or at least won’t need two spaces.

Gregg Nelson
Lauri Levenfeld Gregg Nelson

The other challenge will be whether home buyers are willing to accept not having a garage, not only for their own use, but as a resale value question. Who will be those first buyers/early adopters? Who will take the first step of building a home without a garage? One evolving trend that could help lead the way is the increasing push by highly urbanized cities to move away from cars. They are doing so by pushing for greater densities near public transit stations, along with a restriction in the amount of parking allowed (in stark contrast to most suburban communities). The new trend could incorporate a maximum parking requirement instead of a minimum.

Another challenge will be how to make the transition from the current situation on our roads to a driverless environment. Obviously, this won’t happen all at once. How do we begin to incorporate the driverless vehicles onto our roads that allow people to safely take advantage of the benefits of the technology such as increased travel speed and less congestion? Addressing that will require a lot of problem-solving by the car and technology companies, along with government agencies and transportation consultants. Success will help in the faster adoption of the technology. Perhaps the carpool lanes of today will become the autonomous vehicle lanes of the future.

How do you predict communities will look in five to 10 years from now when driverless cars are the norm?
New architecture will offer the option of eliminating the garage and utilizing that valuable ground-level square footage for living space. This will be especially important in higher-density infill projects. We may see communities designed with less internal roadways and more walkable open space. We should see a reduction in land area dedicated to parking. Studies show that roughly a third of urban real estate is devoted to parking garages, and that there are eight parking spaces for every car operating in the U.S. As time goes by, this “wasted” space will be re-utilized in a way to enhance the environments of our communities.

Infill communities located within a mile or two (or further in some cases) of a transit hub will become “transit-oriented” by virtue of driverless shuttles that allow people to access transit from a location that is too far to walk, without fighting for parking at the station or the hassle of riding a bike. We are currently evaluating how to incorporate ownership of these types of vehicles into the HOA of some of the larger communities we are developing, where there would be one or more vehicles dedicated to the community to make the transit connection easy and inexpensive.

How will driverless cars affect commuting patterns and how will that affect buyers’ decision on location to buy their home?
This is being debated: Will driverless cars reduce congestion because it will be easier and cheaper to carpool, and the technology will help to solve the human-induced congestion issues, allowing for potentially higher speed of travel? Or, will it be so easy and convenient that people will choose to ride in their car for their entire commute, eschewing public transportation altogether, thereby increasing congestion? Only time will tell for sure, but I tend to think it will be a bit of both, but with a significant net improvement. If commutes become shorter and easier, we will see more buyers willing to move to more affordable communities farther from the job centers. This will help ease the tremendous pressures on the core markets and increase demand for housing in outlying market areas.

One interesting additional development is the advent of vertical take-off and landing vehicles as announced recently by Uber, which may start as piloted but will eventually also be pilotless. These could dramatically open up options for people to live further away from where they work without enduring a long commute. For example, a community like Santa Rosa, which is now a commute of one-and-a-half to two hours from the Financial District in San Francisco, would be roughly 20 minutes in a vehicle described by Uber.

What other big technology changes is Trumark is keeping its eye on?
Trumark is certainly keeping its eye on the “flying car” phenomenon as described above. The other technology we are trying to adapt to is drone deliveries, particularly in our urban projects. In thinking about this arena, we felt there needed to be a solution for the problem of how drones can deliver packages to a multi-story condominium building. Obviously there’s no front walk or porch on which to land a drone. So we designed, and are now completing, what we believe is the first drone delivery landing pad in the nation as a part of our TEN50 high-rise development in Downtown Los Angeles.