Elon Musk predicts that fully autonomous cars will hit the road by 2023, while the British government is trying to figure out how safe driverless cars are going to be, and how they should be regulated. Being in the business of on-demand parking, we’re asking another question – how and where are they going to be parked?

According to a ParkAtMyHouse Survey, the average UK motorist spends a shocking 106 days of their life looking for a parking spot, and it takes 20 minutes to find a spot in London alone, thanks to restrictions like resident parking and yellow lines. Since parking space is limited in cities, private parking spots can sell for more than houses. Recently, a parking spot near Hyde Park in the capital was put on the market at £350,000 – more than the average house price.

Elon Musk predicts that fully autonomous cars will hit the road by 2023 © iStock/wastesoul

As driverless technology continues to improve, so does parking. In the next five to ten years, parking as we know it will be completely redefined just as cars will be. Without the need for drivers, cars can be managed by robots in high efficiency spaces that aren’t a blight on the urban landscape, and don’t require customer stairs, elevators and wide alleyways to allow access to individual cars.

Some predict that 15 years from now, autonomous vehicles will have erased the need for up to 90 percent of our current parking spaces. Last year, Audi launched an automated parking garage for self-driving cars near Boston, “where space for vehicles would be reduced by two square meters per car, with driving lanes becoming narrower, and staircases and elevators no longer needed.” Meanwhile, in the UK, Milton Keynes is already experimenting with autonomous vehicles, and planning to convert its current car park real estate to more efficient uses.

UK Tech Weekly Podcast: Driverless Cars

Future car parks will also be able to offer refuelling, maintenance and other car services. Considering how much of our current city space is taken up with large car parks, all of these developments could be transformative, akin to when “horseless carriages” were replaced by cars, and mews were re-appropriated into prime residential and commercial spaces.

The impact that driverless cars will have on cityscapes will be huge, as the way we use streets and real estate for driving, parking and refuelling cars will be totally different. For starters, car parks will become the petrol stations of the future, except that they will mainly be powering the increasingly common electric cars. Commercial car parks and London councils are already offering charging points for electric vehicles, while US on-demand parking startup Luxe has recently announced a partnership with Tesla, so that Tesla consumers’ vehicles can be recharged while parked.

When there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of electric vehicles entering the city, there will also be many thousands of charging points to keep them ‘fuelled’ with power. Most of these charging points will be inside car parks, not on the street. In fact, on-street parking may become a thing of the past entirely in the age of driverless cars, as car users will no longer need to be by their car for it to be parked – they will simply be able to get out of the car where needed, and the car will then be able to driver to the nearest car park, where it can also be recharged.

For efficiency’s sake, driverless cars will park in car parks during off-peak times. They won’t be driving about in anticipation of work, and they will know where and when is most efficient for them to be stationary. The questions of where to park will be determined by the duration of parking required, price points and local availability, and allocation will be handled by software that has high level visibility on space and can take decisions and make assignments to autonomous vehicles in real time with little to no human involvement.

As driverless cars become the norm, many car parks will be designed so as to only allow access to autonomous vehicles, which will include a number of delivery and commercial driving units. Car parks can then be like large shipping ports where delivery vehicles can pull into them to load and unload goods, recharge and leave with speed and efficiency. Imagine a future where driverless cars enter a car park, drive directly to a vacant charging point and have their cargo unloaded and refilled by autonomous robots. On-spot robots will also carry out lightweight maintenance and cleaning services.

As car parks accommodate driverless electric vehicles and become logistics hubs, they will need to modernise to become connected environments with internet access and embedded devices featuring artificial intelligence. These AI devices (think the future versions of the entrance barrier and ticket machine) will react to requests from entering vehicles and the businesses that run those vehicles. Right now, it’s difficult to even get mobile reception in car parks so think how different the car park of the future will be.

Ultimately self-driving cars will change driving patterns, which is going to change city traffic and ultimately city planning. Currently there are two theories as to how people will use self-driving cars; as “autovots” – where cars will pick up individual passengers sequentially with high individual ownership rates, or “taxibots”, where a fleet of cars will be shared by several passengers.

In either scenario, the efficiency and availability of driverless cars will decrease individual car ownership, reduce the number of cars on the road and reduce the need for city parking. This scenario could free up a lot of precious urban property, which could mean greener cities and revitalised suburbs as longer commutes become more palatable.

So how do we go from on-demand parking apps for today’s cars to driverless car parks operated by artificial intelligence? To start with, a number of tech companies are experimenting with new software to help manage and park today’s and as well as future driverless cars. Tesla has recently updated the self-parking feature for the S model, for example, and here at Vallie, we are working on developing APIs for parking a range of self-driving cars from a distance.

We are also using latest technologies to explore car management and storage using interconnected spaces, which would allow car parks to “talk” to each other and exchange information on space availability, prices and traffic flow.

Whatever the case, two things are certain – manual cars will slowly disappear from the streets, just like horses once did, and parking is about to get awesome.

Nash Islam is co-founder and CEO of UK’s first on-demand parking app, Vallie.

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